Exploiting Breakpoints

I did a video for CFB (coming out later this week) with a good friend and fellow Pro player Kyle Boggemes. I almost wish that our conversations in between rounds and in the car had been recorded. Kyle and I were discussing the Modern Jeskai deck we were using for the video. I noted that Kyle always plays decks that are “good stuff” decks and that one of the areas I’ve worked to improve in deck selection is to play better decks.

Letting the Corner-Cases Dissuade You

In particular, my statement had to do with how Kyle’s main deck and sideboard tended to be full of inherently “good cards” that were flexible across a wide range of situations. I pointed out that specific situations that could occur in a game of Magic often deterred my deck selection, and I felt this had been a fatal flaw in my game over the years. It is a flaw that I’ve been working to overcome.

Here’s an example: The last Standard deck I worked to learn was Zombies. In the past, it was a deck I wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole—for all the wrong reasons. In my assessment, Zombies was the best deck in the format in some abstract statistical sense for most of the format. It had great matchups against the other best decks in the format. But it was weak to decks that played a lot of sweeper effects.

I, like a lot of players, have been wary of playing a deck with an Achilles’ heel. As you are sitting back and thinking about what deck to register at a Grand Prix, Open, or RPTQ, a little fear of the worst-case scenario starts to creep in, and perhaps I allow myself to be talked into playing a safer choice. I’ve talked myself out of a lot of great decks over the years, but I didn’t allow myself to be this time around.

The numbers don’t lie. Yes, my Zombies list will lose a lot of games when Fumigate is put onto the stack, which is scary. But how often is this even going to come up? When you think about it, how popular was U/W Approach? Not that popular. Also, they had to draw the card. After sideboard, I got to bring in good cards like Transgress the Mind and Doomfall to mitigate my weakness.

On top of that, Doomfall and Transgress the Mind are generally good and flexible cards. They help protect me from those Fumigates, but they also do work in situations where my opponent doesn’t have that specific card.

I’m pointing out the dynamic in a particular matchup, and this particular dynamic has heavily influenced my choice of deck for years. But I discarded my statistically irrational fear of sweepers and was rewarded by a higher Standard win percentage.

Breakpoints in Games of Magic

As we made our way through the conversation about strengths and weaknesses of our game, Kyle pointed out that I tend to focus on specific points in a game and those particular moments or interactions heavily influence how I build and choose my decks. He gave the example of when I was playing Heroic Intervention in my B/G Constrictor sideboard.

It was a card that I wanted against sweepers but also in midrange mirrors, and it was effective. I countered Fumigates and picked combat battles that quickly became one-sided.

Kyle pointed out that one of my strengths as a player was that I’m strong at understanding, playing to, and exploiting important moments in a game of Magic. I’m going to call these moments “breakpoints.”

A breakpoint is a moment where a tactical advantage is at stake. There is about to be some kind of a showdown sequence of plays, and whoever comes out on top of that sequence will gain a significant edge at winning the game.

Here’s a very simple and non-elegant example of what I’m talking about: Player 1 has two 2/2 creatures and all of their mana untapped. Player 2 has two 3/3 creatures and 1 mana untapped.

Player 1 attacks with both 2/2s. What happens here is going to create a breakpoint in the game. The example is fishy, because without combat tricks the attack looks like a double chump attack. The point is, depending on how player 2 blocks and what combat tricks each player has, the likelihood of either player winning or losing changes dramatically.

Recognizing that this moment is important is critical. Understanding what can happen and playing accordingly is key. If player 2 blocks both creatures and player 1 has Synchronized Strike to eat both of the larger blockers, the momentum of the game swings dramatically. If player 2 has a Fog to cancel the damage, the momentum swings dramatically the other way.

My memory of whether Fog was in Amonhket Limited is foggy.

In essence, the exchange that occurs during that particular combat may be the most important exchange in determining the outcome of that game. It is the breakpoint that delineates a relatively even position from a dominant one.

I’m very good at sniffing these moments out, and I can tell you precisely why:

Much of my competative Magic experience (especially my early years) was dominated by playing Vintage. Type 1 games are all about breakpoints. In fact, they are literally the only thing that matters. If a key spell resolves or gets countered, you lose the game, often on the spot.

The Golden Era of Vintage (when I played) was all about matchups like Control Slaver, Gifts, TPS, and Stax. All of those matchups were about determining where the breakpoints were and picking fights when you thought you could win. If you picked a counter war or used your important spell at the wrong time, it cost you a game.

With that in mind, I’m always looking to exploit important moments in the game and I favor decks that do that.

The fact that a deck like Zombies does not exploit breakpoints and is vulnerable at particular breakpoints (having a Fumigate) is why I’d traditionally avoid it. It does not play to my inherent strengths as a player.

But with that being said, sometimes decks are just so inherently powerful that it doesn’t matter (as was the case with Zombies). Which is where I’ve been looking to extend my range as a player.

Setting Traps

I haven’t written about breakpoints before. Today is the first time that I’ve tried to put into words a concept I’ve used in Magic for years. But in the past when I discussed this idea, I usually have referred to this concept as trapping an opponent.

The way to use breakpoints as a method for trapping an opponent is to play a hand to create a breakpoint where you are favored to come out on top.

At the last Team Grand Prix, I played with two of my good buds: Kyle Boggemes and Stu Parnes. We practiced a lot and had a very good understanding of what the Team Sealed builds looked like, and how the games played out.

When we sat down to build our pool, there was a big problem. Our pool was very, very weak. In fact, there were only two removal spells in red and white combined.

We had a very good B/G +1/+1 synergy deck, which was a no-brainer. After some discussion about how to build the rest of the pool we settled on U/G and R/W aggro as the objectively best decks. Kyle was our B/G guy, Stu was our blue-X guy, and I was our red mage.

I suggested splashing the red removal in the U/G deck because it helped that deck out immensely. We compensated for no removal in the R/W aggro deck by playing all of the 1-drops and all of the combat tricks.

We played objectively worse cards in order to capitalize on breakpoints in the early turns of the game.

I envisioned that games would play out where I could use cheap combat tricks to best bigger (but slower) creatures while continuing to deploy cheap creatures to pressure my opponent. In this instance, the objective of the R/W Aggro deck was to quickly create breakpoints where a bad block (or non-block) would allow me to spiral the game out of control before the opponent ever had chance to deploy their more powerful (but more mana-intensive) threats and answers.

It worked. Despite low power level of the individual pieces, I was able to go 6-3 with bad cards.

There is a tension between good stuff decks and decks that look to exploit breakpoints in a match. Typically decks like midrange try to trade 1-for-1 and have cards that push ahead in terms of raw power level or card advantage. These decks dig in to mitigate an opponent’s ability to exploit breakpoints, instead focusing on winning a battle of attrition through 2-for-1s and bigger, more powerful cards.

But there are still breakpoints in midrange mirrors that you should be thinking about when you play. You can certainly trap an opponent into a particular block and then topple their house of cards.

We intuit breakpoints, but don’t necessarily think about in depth. When you play against a combo deck, it becomes obvious that you can’t tap out on certain turns because you risk losing the game. It’s because those turns are breakpoints where the momentum of the game is at stake.

Verbalizing these ideas has taught me a lot about why I prefer certain types of decks to others. Understanding when breakpoints are coming or when they are on the line is incredibly important. If you don’t know where to look, chances are that you won’t find them.

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