Magic is a complex game, and it’s hard to give generic advice, because each situation is unique and any detail can completely change the correct play. That said, there are certain situations that occur frequently in this Standard format, and they usually take place early enough that you can narrow it down to one, two, or three potential plays. In this article, I’m going to try to give you a heuristic for choosing an option in those situations, depending on what’s happening or what you’re up against.
As the Wikipedia definition says, this isn’t going to be a perfect method. Sometimes you’ll have to deviate from what I say because I cannot possibly predict all of the factors that take place in a game. The goal here is to give you a rough idea of the standard play in each spot, and to illustrate what factors lead to that being the right play, so that if there comes a time you have to deviate, you know what to look for when making your new decision.
1) If I’m on the draw and they play a 2-drop, do I kill it or play my own?
This is a very common spot in any sort of energy mirror. You’re on the draw, your opponent leads with a 2-drop, and you’re staring at a hand of Abrade and your own 2-drop. Should you kill it, or should you play your own creature?
Most of the time, you should kill their creature. The 2-drops are all very threatening on the play, and you take the risk of letting things spiral out of control if you decide to try to develop your own board instead of killing it. It’s for this reason that, if I’m on the draw, I prefer having Abrade over Longtusk Cub in my deck. I feel like it’s more important to kill their creature on turn 2 anyway. If you’re on the play, you want to snowball the game, and if you’re on the draw your job is to not let that happen. You will often not win a race, so you want to take control of the game and have it go long through a series of 1-for-1s that stop your opponent from getting too far ahead.
Obviously, it depends on the removal spell and the creature. I’m more likely to use an Abrade or a Magma Spray, for example, than a Harnessed Lightning that can kill a Glorybringer. If I have Chandra’s Defeat in my hand, I’m less scared of Servant, as I know I’ll have an answer to an accelerated Glorybringer or Chandra. It also depends on which 2-drop they play:
If it’s Longtusk Cub, I will always kill it, because it often outgrows removal, especially if they can play Winding Constrictor.
If it’s Servant of the Conduit, I will always kill it, because they might pull too far ahead or follow it up with cards you can’t kill, such as planeswalkers, Hydras, or multiple 2-drops.
If it’s Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, I will always kill it if they have 2 energy and can use the ability immediately. If they only have 1 energy, then I deploy my own threat instead.
If it’s Winding Constrictor, I usually play my own creature. There’s only one card that really punishes you for this (Rishkar), and it’s usually a 2-of in those decks.
• Kill Cub, Servant, and active Siphoner. Don’t kill 1 energy Siphoner and Winding Constrictor.
2) Do I play around Censor?
Playing around Censor has a way of making you feel stupid regardless of what you do, and it’s one of the situations people struggle with the most. To decide whether I want to play around Censor or not, I usually try to classify my hand as either threat-heavy or land-heavy. Threat-heavy hands are hands that have several cards they have to deal with, and not a lot of lands. A turn-2 hand of Longtusk Cub, Rogue Refiner, Bristling Hydra, The Scarab God and two lands is a threat-heavy hand. Threat-light hands are the opposite—they usually have a lot of lands, and not many threats. A turn-2 hand of Rogue Refiner, Bristling Hydra and four lands is a threat-light hand.
If your hand is threat-heavy, then your best approach is to brute force a threat down before they have time to react. You don’t have a lot of lands, so you’re unlikely to be able to play around Censor anyway. Even if you do successfully dodge Censor with Longtusk Cub and Rogue Refiner, it’ll almost for sure get your Bristling Hydra or your The Scarab God, so you might as well get it out of the way as quickly as possible—and maybe they don’t have it, after all. Ideally, they Censor your first threat, Essence Scatter the next, and then can’t deal with the third or the fourth. You’re trading a real card for their Censor because you have plenty of real cards, and you want to bottleneck them on time—play big threats before they can find their answers. If you wait to play around Censor, you’re just giving them more time to draw other answers, so in that spot I would play the Longtusk Cub.
If your hand is land-heavy and threat light, however, then the situation is the opposite. You know that you will be able to play around Censor forever since you already have a lot of lands, and you cannot brute force a threat because you only have two. If you jam your Rogue Refiner into Censor and then your Hydra meets Essence Scatter, you’re done—you have no followup and cannot punish your opponent in any way. In this spot, you cannot afford to trade a real card for Censor because you don’t have enough real cards to fight that battle—you have to be able to blank their Censor.
3) Which 1-drop do I play first in my aggro deck?
If you’re playing Mono-Black Aggro, things are different—you have 3 different options, all of which have merit.
Assuming your opponent cannot interact with you in any way on turn 1, Night Market Lookout offers the highest upside (1 extra life as opposed to the others). It is, however, the worst at battling any interaction since it’s a 1/1. It’s also the most valuable in the late game since it drains on crewing, so you ideally don’t want to get it Shocked. I would only lead with Night Market Lookout if I knew for a fact that my opponent had no turn-1 blocker and no turn-1 Shock or Fatal Push (which usually means that you’ll only do it if you’re on the play).
Dread Wanderer is the safest choice because it can attack through the most blockers your opponent can produce—it’s 2 free damage facing a Servant of the Conduit or unpumped Longtusk Cub, for example, whereas the other two cannot attack. It’s also the best to get Shocked or Fatal Pushed. Finally, it’s good to play it on turn 1 because its drawback of entering the battlefield tapped becomes irrelevant, whereas later on you might be unable to block or crew a Vehicle because of it. It is, however, the worst creature to get Magma Sprayed. If you’re unsure what your opponent is playing, I think leading with Dread Wanderer is the best against the most things because it’s the one that minimizes what can go wrong.
Vicious Conquistador is usually the worst to play on turn 1, but it occupies a special niche—it fights through 1/1 blockers. If your opponent is likely to play a turn-1 Sacred Cat, or a turn-2 Adorned Pouncer or Adanto Vanguard, then Vicious Conquistador is the only 1-drop that can attack. If you suspect your opponent is playing either of those decks, then you lead with Conquistador.
• If you’re playing against a deck that can Magma Spray you (Temur) and you’re on the play, lead with Night Market Lookout.
• If you’re playing against a deck that has 1/1s they’d be happy to block with (U/W Gift, G/W Aggro), lead with Vicious Conquistador.
• In all other spots, lead with Dread Wanderer.
5) Do I lead with Servant of the Conduit or Longtusk Cub?
If you have Servant of the Conduit and Longtusk Cub in your opening hand, it can be hard to know which to start the game with. The most important thing to consider is whether it’s going to die or live and be able to attack the following turn. If you have reason to believe it will stay in play (you’re playing against a U/W deck, for example), then I like leading with Longtusk Cub. It’s more likely to snowball, and it’s better the earlier you play it, whereas Servant is relatively more consistent throughout the game.
There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is when you think Longtusk Cub will live, but not be able to get through. In a scenario where you have 0 energy and your opponent is on Temur and passed turn 2 with no play, then it’s unlikely that Cub will be able to get through—you can only grow it into a 3/3 the following turn, and it can just be stopped by Rogue Refiner or Whirler Virtuoso plus a token. In this case, play Servant. The second exception is when you have a particularly great turn 3 if Servant lives, such as another Servant plus the Longtusk Cub, or perhaps a Chandra, in which case it’s better to play the Servant as well.
If it’s perhaps not going to live, then you have to consider what sort of removal is killing it. Fatal Push is going to kill either creature no matter what, so you might as well play the Longtusk Cub because if they don’t have it, then it’s the better threat. Non-Harnessed-Lightning red removal, on the other hand, gets outpaced quickly by Cub, in which case it’s usually better to wait until you have 4 energy. If I’m playing against Ramunap Red, for example, I’m always going to play Servant turn 2 because if I play Cub, it’s likely to get hit by Shock, Abrade, or Lightning Strike, and if I want two turns, I can stop that from happening.
• If you think the 2-drop will survive and be able to attack, play Cub. (Most U/W/G/W decks.)
• If you think it’ll be killed by black removal or Harnessed Lightning, play Cub. (U/B, Tokens, Mardu, the mirror sometimes.)
• If you think the 2-drop will be killed by red removal (Spray, Abrade, Strike) or they will produce a blocker that you cannot get through, play Servant. (Ramunap Red, the mirror sometimes.)
5) Do I pump my Cub or conserve my energy?
Most of the time, pumping Cub has the lowest priority in energy use. I’d say it goes roughly like this:
Top priority: Mana. If you need mana for Aether Hub or Servant of the Conduit, then don’t spend your energy in anything else. If you aren’t familiar with the deck, it’s easy to forget that Servant needs an energy.
Second priority: Confiscation Coup and Harnessed Lightning. If there’s a chance you need to Confiscation Coup a The Scarab God, or Harnessed Lightning a Glorybringer or bigger creature, then keep the energy.
Third priority: Bristling Hydra activation.
Fourth priority: Whirler Virtuoso.
Fifth priority: Longtusk Cub.
If you have excess energy, then it’s usually safe to just pump Cub because most other things don’t demand a high amount of energy anyway. If I’m constrained on it, however, then I usually only pump Longtusk Cub if I have nothing else to use the energy on (or I’m in a situation I know I’ll have to race, so I have no choice). If you have a Whirler Virtuoso, it’s almost always better to make a token than it is to pump a Cub, even if the ratio is worse—two 1/1 flyers are worth more than +3/+3.
If you have multiple Cubs and you’re playing against Red, then I think you want to conserve your energy more than you want to pump because this way you protect both Cubs. Imagine you’re playing against a deck with Abrade, and you have two Cubs and 4 energy. At this point, if you pump one Cub, they can kill the other, but if you don’t pump, then they can’t kill either.
It’s the same with blockers. Say you’re playing against Ramunap Red and you have two 2/2 Cubs with 4 energy. If you pump one and your opponent plays Rampaging Ferocidon, then the 2/2 Cub cannot attack. If you still have the energy, then both Cubs can attack freely.
• If you have an excess of energy and no other use for it, pump the Ccub. If you are constrained on energy or have multiple Cubs, don’t pump it.
5b) Do I make a token with Whirler Virtuoso or conserve my energy?
This is similar to Cub, except it’s higher on the list, and the benefit is a bit better. The one exception worth mentioning is that it’s better to have 3 energy than a token on defense. Having a token already in play makes it susceptible to “can’t block” effects from Ramunap Red (Khenra and Ahn-Crop Crasher), to Glorybringer, and to sorcery-speed removal (Chandra/Walk the Plank). As a result, only make tokens you’re actually planning on attacking with.
• If you have excess energy and no other use for it, and you’re going to attack with the token, make a token.
Remember that these are merely guidelines, and the actual situation that you encounter in game could be different. Hopefully I managed to explain the reasons for my plays enough that, if you have to adapt, you’re able to do so.