When I play games other than Magic, I often have no idea what to think about. I end up making strategy decisions at random. And when I feel clueless about a game, it’s uncomfortable for me.
When I’m playing Magic, I can always figure out the best play (given enough time to think) and I know which aspects of the game are important. For this article, I played through a game of Limited, and took a screenshot at each decision point to show you some of the thought processes you should aim to go through during a game.
1) The deck list. Memorize your deck list in paper tournaments. It will help you during mulliganing to know how many of each land and how many cheap spells are in your deck. Knowing your exact deck list will also help when you’re in a precarious position by remembering what you are hoping to draw, and you can play accordingly. On MTGO, you can simply reference your deck list during the game.
2) The opening hand—my opponent is going first. Keep. This hand is simple and easy, but I can expand on Limited theory: Mulliganing is terrible. If you have between 2 and 5 lands, and a typical deck, you should keep 90% of the time. Limited is different than Constructed—Constructed is all about finding your nut draw.
2.5) What land should you play turn 1? In this particular deck and format, it doesn’t matter. In a format like Legacy, you might consider complex cards like Stifle and Wasteland. In Limited, you should remember if you have any double-colored 2-drops in your deck, and play accordingly. You should also consider whether there are any 1-mana instants in the format that you would like or would not like to represent (e.g., Disfigure).
There is a simple rule of thumb for this hand that you can apply to your decisions in the future. If you have 2 Swamps and 1 Forest, play the Swamp—this way you will be able to play a BB 2-drop or a BG 2-drop (without having to remember your deck list).
It’s also possible to deny information to your opponent via which land you play on turn 1. Imagine that your opponent plays turn-1 Forest and turn-2 Birds of Paradise—it is obvious that they drew Birds on turn 2. Keep this idea in mind when you are playing with cheap cards in your deck. If you have Birds of Paradise in your library but not your hand and you have the choice between turn 1 Swamp or Forest, play the Swamp to disguise your hand. On turn 2, if you happen to draw and cast Birds, then your opponent will know that you either drew Forest or Birds of Paradise, but not which one.
3) The opponent cast Lay Bare the Heart. You could just sit there and not pay attention, but there is a tremendous amount of information to be gleaned from this situation. The opponent does not have any 2-mana creatures in their hand—any of them would have been a better play this turn. Bitterblade Warrior is the most obvious choice, because it is my only 2-mana card—taking it would likely deprive me of 2 mana.
I don’t really care if I spend turn 3 casting either Monument or Hooded Brawler. Never // Return is also a reasonable choice if the opponent has a bomb creature to protect. The opponent takes Hooded Brawler—the takeaway is that they may have multiple removal spells in hand and are looking to trade for my creatures and make Rhonas’s Monument worthless.
5) The opponent continues to make me discard—what should I pitch? First, recognize what I mentioned on turn 2: If the opponent had a creature or removal spell for the Bitterblade Warrior they would have cast it. Casting Unburden early in the game has no impact on the board. I want to use my mana on my turn 3, and I have to keep Swamp and Rhonas’s Monument in order to have a turn-3 play.
6) What should I cast on turn 3? Playing Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons is tempting because it has the potential to generate an advantage if left uncontested. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to connect with Hapatra next turn, as my opponent only needs to put a creature onto the battlefield to block. Playing Rhonas’s Monument will let me use my mana well and likely lead to the most possible damage throughout the game compared to Hapatra.
7) Turn 4. I took this screenshot after immediately playing a Swamp that I drew for the turn. I should have stopped to think. When you have priority and are likely to take several actions, it’s best to wait and think until you know exactly what you are going to do for the whole turn and make those choices all at once.
It was a mistake to play this fourth land. It is a fairly easy decision to cast Quarry Hauler instead of Hapatra because of Soulstinger—I do not want my Hapatra to die. It’s possible that I could take a turn off of attacking, play Hapatra then Quarry Hauler the next turn to generate a Snake token by adding a -1/-1 counter to Soulstinger. I don’t like taking turns off of attacking—if my opponent has a removal spell I would be missing out on damage.
There is one interesting choice of whether to add, remove, or not do anything to the counters on Soulstinger. I chose to remove a counter from the Soulstinger so that later on it could not kill Hapatra.
8) My opponent cast Miasmic Mummy and discarded Never // Return—I was forced to discard Hapatra. When I’m playing for fun or online I enjoy being punished by my own poor plays. If I were playing a Pro Tour and lost a Hapatra for no gain, I’d be a little more upset. Despite my own flaws, it’s important to stay focused.
To the choice at hand, I can cast Hooded Brawler, pump a creature and attack, or use Return on my opponent’s Return. Because there is only a one-turn window to use my Return, I think that it’s the best choice. Before I use Return I have the option of attacking with both of my creatures and offering a trade. Attacking is a good choice—either I get in some damage or my opponent will trade off their Soulstinger while I have no creatures in play.
9) My opponent played Gravedigger and returned Soulstinger. This turn is easy. The only choice is whether or not to play my Forest. I chose to play it, because I am very far ahead and my opponent is unlikely to play around any instants. Do note that if you play out lands, leaving yourself hellbent once or twice, you will have more credit in a turn or two when you decide to keep a land in hand.
10) Always maximize your advantage during the few times in Magic that you know cards in your opponent’s hand. My opponent has Soulstinger in hand and chose to play a simple Doomed Dissenter instead. They must have a cheap instant. If you are playing in an MTGO Draft, you might do a quick search for all the instants.
In this case, I can rule out Magma Spray, because it would be better to use that before I could draw a pump spell—the most likely instant is Supernatural Stamina, which is incredible with Gravedigger. I don’t want my Hooded Brawler to die, as it’s my best path to victory. I pump Hooded Brawler, shrink the Greatmaw, attack with both creatures, and exert Brawler.
12) At this point, I’m likely to lose. It’s almost never correct to hold two lands. Consider that you may draw a card draw spell or something like Gravedigger and need the mana. Even if you have zero card draw spells, your opponent might play a weird card like Baral’s Expertise, and you’ll need all of the mana that you can get.
I don’t draw anything, and I lose. Even if you only have one possible draw to win, those small 2-5 percentage points will be wins when you give yourself the opportunity. A win by topdeck is just as honorable as any other.
14) Sideboarding is essential in both Limited and Constructed. Most inexperienced players never consider adjusting the number of lands in their deck during sideboarding. Consider removing a land when you are going second, are in an attrition-based matchup, or are lowering your mana curve.
Based on the length of game 1 and my opponent casting Unburden, I want to add 2-for-1 cards to my deck. Wander in Death will be excellent, and Initiate’s Companion is horrible against black in Amonkhet Limited because of its 1 toughness.