Chasing Victory – The Little Things

The Little Things

Magic is a game of edges, and as such, it’s the little things that matter. Playing the wrong land, tapping your mana incorrectly, and misidentifying your role are all frequent mistakes I see even good players make. Getting rid of these bad habits is what transforms you from mediocre to good, or good to great.

Limited is a tricky format for players who are used to Constructed. I know that it took me a while to realize all the differences. I know that a lot of this stuff has been said before, but it bears repeating as long as these mistakes keep occurring.


Once you graduate from a new player to a mediocre player, you probably start trying to play around cards that your opponent might have. The problem is, a lot of the time playing around a Giant Growth or whatever will make no sense, as if they had it, they would have killed you with it the previous turn. You have to have a legitimate reason to put them on a certain trick.

Once you do have that reason, you have to first decide whether or not you can afford to play around that trick, and then second, continue to play around it. In the first scenario, I see a lot of people chump block a near lethal creature, because if the opponent had a pump spell they would die. Then, they draw their own pump spell or burn spell, which would have killed their opponent had they still had their creature, and then just die to two swings from the creature they chumped.

Why would you block there? Unless you know they have it, you are putting yourself in a terrible position. By chumping, you are taking away almost any out you had to win the game.

Once you decide they have a certain trick you have to decide whether or not you can afford to play around it. In the above pump spell situation, you probably can’t. If they have it, good for them. If not, you are in a much better situation than if you just threw away your creature.

If you decide to put them on a trick, like Safe Passage, then you should probably stay on that read. Try to bait it out if it matters, but don’t play right into their trick the next turn. What’s the point of putting them on that trick in the first place if you are going to suddenly decide they don’t have it, and then walk right into it?

You can also use this to your advantage by representing tricks of your own. Generally, I am willing to bluff through extra damage if there is a high chance that my bluff will work. If my opponent plays a Djinn of Wishes, I am definitely attacking with my 2/2 or 3/3. Their risk is much higher than their reward, and they would have to be crazy to risk their bomb to prevent two damage. While the Djinn is probably going to beat you, at least now you have a chance of drawing some spell that either burn them out, or help you get in the last few points of damage.

When I played against Paul Rietzl in PT Seattle, he played a turn four Skyhunter Cub and equipped it with Horned Helm. The 4/4 flier was going to be quite good against my deck, so I untapped, played my land, and fearlessly attacked with my 2/2 Tel-Jilad Wolf. Paul thought for a while, realized that I would be willing to bluff in this situation, and blocked. My creature died, but I drew well after that and won the game.

Two things are important here. The first is that you have to make the bluff convincing. If I had thought for a while on my turn about whether or not it was worth risking my 2/2 for two damage, Paul probably would have picked up on that and decided that I was bluffing.

Second, my bluff had little risk involved. I would need to draw an answer to the 4/4 regardless of my 2/2, so overall, the 2/2 had no bearing on the outcome of the game. At least if I got in those two points of damage, I might be able to race the 4/4 with a different string of draws, so overall, I gave myself more outs.

During Grand Prix Atlanta last year, I had a mediocre deck but was 5-0. Sadly, I was paired against Jon Sonne, who had a much better Naya deck than mine. He also had an excellent start, with turn two Druid of the Anima, turn three Algae Gharial, turn four Rakeclaw Gargantuan.

I had a lowly Court Archers and four land. I knew that Gharial was going to be a huge problem, as I had no way to remove it and we were definitely going to start trading in combat. I devised a plan to give myself a shot. I attacked with Court Archers into his untapped Rakeclaw and Gharial and he thought for a bit, eventually commenting, “That’s a risky bluff.”

He was fairly certain I didn’t have anything, but the risk wasn’t worth the reward, so he took it. Post-combat, I Resounding Thundered the Rakeclaw Gargantuan. I didn’t have a pump spell in my hand, but the fact that I didn’t Thunder his guy and then attack made it alarmingly clear that I did, in fact, have a pump spell.

For the next few turns, I would attack and then play another creature, all the while leaving open WG for my imaginary Sigil Blessing or Resounding Roar. His Gharial grew and grew, but still, it didn’t attack until it was out of range of my pump spell. Eventually the croc plus his topdecks of Ajani Vengeant and Bull Cerodon finished me off, but I saved at least 11 damage from my bluff.


This is somewhat related to putting them on tricks. Oftentimes, a player will draw their bomb, see that their opponent has UU1 open, and decide not to cast it for fear of them having the Cancel. If you don’t have anything to bait out that Cancel, why wouldn’t you cast your spell? What are you waiting for? There is definitely a chance that they don’t have it, regardless of whether or not they have been representing it.

This tends to be the case in Constructed as well. At the Kentucky Open, I was playing Faeries with White while my opponent was a solid player with GW Tokens. I had stabilized at two life and was slowly mounting a comeback. We both have a bunch of tokens, and I made very aggressive attacks to make him start chump blocking my Reveillark.

The turn he was going to die, he said, “I guess I have to go for it,” and cast a Cloudthresher that killed me. He was extremely surprised when it resolved, as apparently he had it for several turns, but thought that I had what would have been my fourth Cryptic Command. If I had Cryptic, he would have just been dead to me tapping his guys, but he was scared of me countering his game winning spell and held it, thus giving me several turns to actually draw it.

Luis was in game three of his Round One feature match at Pro Tour Honolulu, and found himself in a similar situation. His opponent had a Realm Razer to Luis’ Bloodbraid Elf and single land. I think his opponent had some 1/1s from Sprouting Thrinax and maybe a land or two, but it doesn’t really matter (it was two lands – LSV). His opponent was scared of Luis having a Terminate in his hand and drawing the land to cast it, as then Luis would be able to cast all the powerful spells he was holding.

LSV’s opponent decided that he had to get aggressive and attacked with everyone. Bloodbraid Elf couldn’t have been pushed in front of the Realm Razer any quicker, and Luis got all of his lands back, untapped, and easily won the game.

His opponent was worried about his Realm Razer being killed so badly that he ended up killing it for Luis, despite Luis not having the answer! Likewise, if you don’t cast your game winning bomb into their counterspell, you have effectively just counter spelled your spell, regardless of whether or not your opponent actually has it.


I see this most often in games where a player is very much in command. They assume they are going to win and start to relax. At that point, they miss some damage, don’t play around certain cards, and could very easily end up giving away any advantage that they once held. It’s the games that you are ahead in that you should attempt to maintain your composure and stay on your “A” game.

Is your opponent confident? Is he up to something? Maybe he’s sandbagging a Caldera Hellion, and just waiting for you to play out that extra creature.

If you’re ahead, think about exactly what they could have to cause you to lose the game, and see if you can play around it. Maybe you should just use your removal spell to “counter” their Tendrils so that their Earthquake will kill them instead of all your creatures.


Obviously, Mike Flores is the originator of the concept. Basically, in every single matchup, one deck is attempting to be the beatdown, while the other is playing control. Even if one deck might be more controlling than the other, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t better suited to playing the beatdown in that specific matchup.

Do you always know which side of the coin you are? Should you trade Runeclaw Bears on turn two, or simply take the damage and attack them back? It depends on your hand, and it depends on whether or not you want to preserve your life total.

If you have an insane bomb in your hand, that changes everything. If you have something like Martial Coup, you are better off trading early and therefore able to get the maximum value out of it when it comes time to pull the trigger. The more life you have to play with, the more likely they are to commit to the board. Also, the damage that you would deal to them is largely irrelevant, as the game will probably end once the Coup is cast.


I mentioned this in an earlier article, as has Zac Hill, but you should only use a removal spell if the creature you would kill is literally causing you to lose the game. If they play a 2/2 on the play and you have a Lightning Bolt, but your first play isn’t going to be for three turns, you should probably Bolt it. That’s six points of damage already, and will only add up if they end up removing the first creature you play.

However, if they have something like Royal Assassin that makes it almost impossible to win, perhaps you should save the Bolt, especially if you are removal light.


This happens so often and people have no idea that they are doing it. Whether it’s because you shuffle with the bottom of your deck facing toward your opponent, you sort your hand when you draw your opener, or because you “bluff” too much, “thinking” after every spell your opponent casts, you are giving away free information.

The first two are self explanatory, but the third deserves some detail. If you are playing a Blue deck and they cast a Captain of the Watch, and you spend 15 seconds “thinking,” and then say “that resolves,” you have just successfully bluffed nothing. It’s very obvious you don’t have a counterspell, because otherwise you would have countered their awesome spell. If you repeat this every single time you think a bluff is necessary, you are not only wasting valuable time, but also spelling out for your opponent that you have exactly nothing. You are accomplishing exactly the thing you set out to avoid.

You need to be able to think ahead. What will you counter, and what isn’t worth it? If they play a marginal Warpath Ghoul and you have Essence Scatter, are you going to counter it? Well, you probably should have known the answer to that before they even cast their spell.

If you played a Mountain and passed the turn, would you Bolt their turn one Llanowar Elf? Again, you should already know the answer before they play their Elf.

If they know you are the type of player to always play your Mountain first if you have Lightning Bolt, then you can take advantage of that and play a Swamp first. Or, you can leave a Swamp open and tap BBR to cast your Warpath Ghoul. Your opponent will assume you don’t have Lightning Bolt, as otherwise you would have left a red open, because there’s nothing you can play for one black.

It’s something as simple as that that can provide a little bit of misdirection.

Players also tend to play with their hand a little low to the table. If an opponent were so inclined, they could probably lean in and catch a fat glimpse. Also, whenever you tilt your hand, you risk exposing your cards. For this reason, I tend to keep a “blank” card like a land or spell they already know I have in front, with none of the other cards viable.

A little paranoid? Probably, but at least I won’t be giving away information that way.


In many tournaments, a draw is effectively the same thing as a loss. Still, players play with no regard to the clock, and then complain when they end up 6-1-1 and in tenth place. They “should” have made Top Eight.

Wrong. What they should have done was either concede earlier, play a deck that they were more comfortable with, or used more shortcuts.

“But it was my opponent who was playing slow!” you might contend, but why didn’t you simply call a judge or tell your opponent he needs to hurry up? If your number one concern isn’t winning the tournament, you forfeit all rights to complain about how you didn’t win it after the fact.

Also, you need to think about your entire game plan. If they play a creature and pass the turn back to you, there is no reason you should have to rethink the entire board state. It’s barely changed! Instead, I see many players thinking over a board position like their friend just tagged them into their MTGO game.


You shouldn’t try to incorporate all of this into your game in your next session. It’s definitely too much to take in all at once, but just keep this article in mind next time you’re playing. You should pay attention to whether or not you make these mistakes, and then if you can, do whatever you can to fix them.

Hope this has been helpful.


24 thoughts on “Chasing Victory – The Little Things”

  1. another good one gerry. i think often we give away too much info simply from thinking. like you said, u should know if ur gonna bolt that elf or what spells need to be countered. Though, sometimes thinking can end up being a bluff, makin them think u have a counter or removal etc.

  2. Good article, I pride myself on playing pretty quickly, I feel as though it kind of puts some extra pressure on an opponent when I’m playing spells quickly, as if I didn’t have a care in the world because I can answer any issue. . .

    That being said, I’ve never thought about ‘purposely’ bad mana-tapping. . . The situation where you can force your opponent to believe you don’t have the bolt because otherwise you’d leave a mountain up is something I intend to abuse very heavily.

  3. great post gerry! plenty in there to work on. 🙂 it’s amazing how consistent the advice from top-players is. i can only conclude it means us “mediocre players” are ALWAYS making the same mistakes. thanks again!

  4. Great article. Not a dig, but I did find it amusing that you recount several incidents of trickery where you ended up losing anyway 😉

  5. on thechump blocking scenario, I think its a decision between a topdeck or your opponent having the card in their hand. Mr. Svi’s lessons says not to chump mostly.

    In the UBw faeries scenario, maybe it would be a mistake to cast that 4th Command and not wait for a card like Cloudthresher, since just you ended up being the agro player anyway.

    On Zac Hil’s department, I guess its not that easy to define what is exactly killing you or not. Sometimes you just lost the game on turn 2 because of a certain situation which is hard to guess. The countering department keeps the same opinion for me, with the difference you have to decide RIGHT NOW.

    me liked the article.

  6. Nice article Gerry. One question –

    “Oftentimes, a player will draw their bomb, see that their opponent has UU1 open, and decide not to cast it for fear of them having the Cancel. If you don't have anything to bait out that Cancel, why wouldn't you cast your spell? What are you waiting for? There is definitely a chance that they don't have it, regardless of whether or not they have been representing it.”

    At what times is it right to play around a counterspell? Ever?

  7. Kenseiden: Maybe ask yourself the question “Am I still going to win if I don’t kill that creature?” If the answer is a resounding yes, why bother killing it? Numerous player kill a 3/3 when they’re going to be playing a 4/4 in a turn or two. At that point, the 3/3, while solid, isn’t going to be doing much.

    Maybe evaluating the strength of certain cards in play or that could be lurking in their deck is something you have to work on. For me, I usually think somewhere along the lines of:

    1) Holy crap, that thing is going to deal me a ton of damage.

    2) Ehh, that guy is good, but I’m going to outclass it in a few turns. If they have a removal spell, I’ll take some extra damage, and maybe if they have a Panic Attack or Searing Flesh I’ll lose because of it. Seems kind of risky, maybe I should kill that.

    3) That thing is irrelevant.

    4) If he plays Royal Assassin, I can’t win, so I should save my removal regardless of how good that creature is.

  8. good timing for your article, since I am currently trying to teach one of my friends to pay more attention to those bluffs.

  9. Russell: It depends. If you have other spells in hand you think you can bait them with, then maybe try that. However, the situation I was talking about was when there’s a stalemate and both players have only a couple cards in hand. At that point, NOT casting your spell is kind of foolish.

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  11. I liked the slow play section, not a lot of people give it the credit it deserves as a skill to know when to scoop due to the clock or when to rush your opponent. During Nats, I went to game 3 with 7 minutes left in a draft match. I kept the pace so brisk that he punted playing out his curve properly (I was told after the match what he had in hand) and instead was wasting turns pumping his knight of skyward eye for more damage. Then I dropped Fusion Elemental, kill spell, violent rebirth, GG

  12. Regarding knowing in advance if you’re bolting the Llanowar Elf/countering the Warpath Ghoul:

    If you practice this enough, you’ll play faster, obviously. Get fast enough, and you gain a *tremendous* advantage: for tons of players at all skill levels, the natural response to an opponent’s brisk pace of play is to match it, regardless of whether or not they can play correctly at that pace. The urge is instinctive; players often have no clue they’re even doing it. You don’t need to do anything as overt or unpleasant as verbally rushing your opponent. Your rhythm does the trick.

    Bob Maher tells stories of old school pros (Mike Turian? Eugene Harvey? My mtg history isn”t up to snuff) who were total masters of this and would just destroy people. It’s an advanced skill that I don’t advocate attempting until you can actually play correctly quickly (lord knows I can’t pull this off to save my life), but it’s potent.

  13. While this article was a nice rehash, the freshest advice was in your reply to Kenseiden. That’s not to say there was other good stuff in the article itself, but that comment was for reals.

  14. Re: bolt the turn 1 elves: doesn’t the “right” answer depend on knowing what deck type your opponent is playing?

    Good article, though I would have liked to see a more clear division between the fundamental technical play stuff (which I care about) and the advanced bluffing/tournament stuff (which I will probably never care about, unless in some brief fit of insanity I decide to throw my money away at a PTQ).

  15. Still, players play with no regard to the clock, and then complain when they end up 6-1-1 and in tenth place. They "should" have made Top Eight.

    eeek. i am very guilty of this. yucky. never again, it hurts too. bad.

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