As a Magic player, you’ve probably been advised to have a game plan rather than just cast spells and hope things work out. This can take many forms, from deckbuilding so that you’ll more often be able to achieve a planned outcome, to in-game pressures that force you to reevaluate your course and plot a new direction for the situation at hand. These plans can be simple, such as building a control deck in Standard with Languish and few-to-no creatures that Languish will kill; or complex, such as figuring out which spell to cast because you want to set up a plan for the late game 3 turns from now.
From these examples you can see that it’s sometimes easy to have a plan, and other times can be vexing, and thinking about it as a concept can at times be too vague. Today I’ll go through a recent Cube match that had some interesting turning points where I needed to have a plan at each step.
The matchup is a classic midrange mirror in Limited. My opponent is much more spell based than I am, though I have some interactive pieces as well. My first game plan was to try to get ahead early with a Riftwing Cloudskate and Mystic Snake. I did that briefly and furthered my attack angle by setting up a turn here where I cast Zealous Conscripts to untap my Grim Monolith (stolen with Dack, whee!), and then cast Stormbreath Dragon off Shelldock Isle. Things look pretty good here despite my Dragon dying, and my plan from here should be to continue pressuring my opponent.
Applying pressure actually takes two forms with my hand. Memory Jar can find some final gas to help me win, while Upheaval will let me cast a Sylvan Caryatid post Upheaval, and then replay Shelldock Isle for a new juicy hit. That plan quickly got worse though when my opponent cast Sol Ring furthered by the impact that I’d return my borrowed Grim Monolith back to its rightful owner. Memory Jar it is.
A couple turns later I’ve continued to apply pressure but now my opponent has stabilized with Consecrated Sphinx. I need to think about my plan now and wonder if I really am trying to win through those last 3 points of damage, or if I should go for the backup plan of Splinter Twin on my Conscripts. There are a few interesting things to consider about this. First, my opponent’s last spell was Mesmeric Fiend to take my Upheaval, seeing my Splinter Twin. Second, I’d seen Terminate in a previous game and my opponent has 5 cards of their last 16, and has played in a way the last turn or two where they might have drawn it. Third, I don’t have Kiki-Jiki in my deck, so I can’t plan to use Splinter Twin as bait if I want to win via a combo kill.
What’s most interesting is if I should play around Terminate at all. It’s great against any attack I can make, but even better at breaking up any combo I might have, so perhaps I should just go for an aggressive line. If I attack now, I’ll force a chump from the Fiend if my opponent has nothing and lose my Conscripts, but get back a potentially game-winning Upheaval (though again, it’s a bit mitigated by all the fast mana my opponent has, and I’ll have lost a few key threats in combat).
But this is assuming my opponent has nothing. And if that’s true, why not just slam Splinter Twin on Conscripts and try to win? The problem is that that play puts me so far behind on board when my opponent is so low and has such high risk that I figure at this point my plan should be to flood the board a bit with a couple more creatures to go wider than my opponent while also forcing them to respect the Splinter Twin in my hand.
Thus, I decide to Memory Jar now to find some more pressure—in this case, an Avalanche Riders to force my opponent to either react soon or die. I could attack with the whole team for lethal, but my opponent just drew 7 cards off Jar with mana up in an interactive deck. I decide to hold back, and my opponent Searing Spears me at end of turn before discard!
My opponent simply untaps and passes, with 3 cards left in library and 4 cards in hand, and still hasn’t cast Terminate yet. They go to my draw step with Sphinx… and choose to draw 2! This is a game defining decision. That puts them to 1 card in library that they’ll draw and either they then kill me or lose. As you can see, I’ve drawn a blank for my turn but I’m facing the same Terminate conundrum as before. I have two options here: attack with everything, or cast Splinter Twin. Attack with everything unfortunately goes nowhere fast. My opponent blocks then kills my Conscripts and goes to 1 and then I can’t even cast Upheaval. So my other option is cast Splinter Twin or do nothing and pass.
This is the point where your game plan has to change. In this brief final moment of the game, I can no longer kill my opponent by attacking, and I also can’t combo kill them if they have the Terminate. And yet, my opponent Searing Speared my face instead of one of my creatures recently, indicating a burn plan may be in motion, and in addition they’ll have access to every single card left in their deck on the final turn. Thus, to absorb the most damage, I should force my opponent’s hand with the Terminate and cast Splinter Twin on my Conscripts. This will make them kill it, and protects my Cloudskate, which can chump block the Sphinx on the last turn.
Unfortunately, I was so focused on winning the whole time with damage or Twinning that I wasn’t able to shift my focus to not losing fast enough. I simply passed the turn, my opponent Terminated my Cloudskate at end of turn, attacked for 4, and…
Rakdos Returned and he was feeling mighty angry!
I ended up losing a game where I had a pretty solid game plan the whole time, until I missed a radical departure and needed to pivot into a totally new game plan on the final turn. That was a valuable lesson for me, but more importantly points to checking in every turn and making sure you’re doing everything you can to further your goals. Having a plan in the theoretical sense is easy, but implementing it every turn, and thinking about how that plan is altered with each play you and your opponents make is where the rubber meets the road. Try your best each game and learn from both successful and unsuccessful plans. It’s a very hard thing to do perfectly, and also remember that you might lose at times when you had a great game plan where you might have won if you did things randomly. As long as you’re maximizing win percentage over a large sample size, then you are doing the right thing and you’ll keep making better plans over time.