Only Fools Rush In

Patience. Patience. Patience….

“But I want it now!”

We live in a world where everything is available at the push of a button or the click of a mouse. We are accustomed to the instant gratification of every fleeting desire. Patience is invaluable but can also be unfamiliar.

In Magic, you’ll often find yourself facing a board that may require a masterful dose of patience to achieve maximum payoff.

I’ve seen noticeable improvement in my Limited win percentage since I began refining this particular skill set over the past few months. I recently wrote another article that highlights the importance of refining and improving your fundamentals, and this is another subset of basic strategy where a lot of games are won and lost.

What is Patience in Magic?

OK, so what the heck am I even talking about?

Patience in Magic (so far as I’ll be using it today) is passing up a possible risky advantage in order to secure a strategically better and safer advantage later in the game.

The basic idea is that rather than push a contested advantage right now, you can choose not to fight over that area of the game and instead use your resources to reinforce advantage elsewhere.

This strategy is a little more obvious and useful in Limited. In Constructed, your decks are designed to push certain types of advantages. Often, you cannot afford to be patient because once the opportunity to contest an advantage has passed, it’s gone forever. Plays are a little more telegraphed in Constructed because the spells and decks are more sleek, powerful, and mana efficient.

Examples Where Patience Pays Off

Imagine that you are playing an aggro Draft deck and both players made relevant plays on the first three turns. You’ve curved out with the following cards on the draw:

So, you have a 3/3 that gets +1/+1 when it is blocked, and a 3/5.

Your opponent has curved out with:

On their fourth turn they play a fourth land and pass the turn. Let’s say they have:

You untap and luckily find yourself with a bunch of options. Basically, you can press your advantage by attacking, backed up with a Crash the Ramparts, or play out more creatures. The specifics are not terribly important but I’d like to focus on the choice itself.

What does your opponent’s play tell you about their strategy? Why didn’t they play to the board on their turn? I think it is very safe to say that your opponent here is representing at least one combat trick. It is the thing that makes the most sense given that they left all of their creatures back to block and used none of their mana with a full grip of cards.

The fact that you have a combat trick to best their trick in the combat step is enticing, but nonetheless the combat is going to be a risky one if you push in here. What if they have Vampire’s Zeal and Sure Strike?

These are common cards your opponent could likely have. Or, heaven forbid they slam a Settle the Wreckage! You could just as easily come out of the combat and pass the turn suddenly behind on board when you were ahead when you started the turn! What if you burn your combat trick to fight their combat trick and then the opponent untaps and plays some  5-drop you can’t apply pressure through? Disaster.

But what if you are patient on this board? Two weeks ago I wrote an article about breakpoints in games of Magic.

If you haven’t read this article, check it out. Breakpoints are confrontations in games of Magic where tremendous swings of momentum occur. It is clear that if you attack in the spot I described that you are initiating a breakpoint moment where the game will swing greatly one way or the other.

By being patient, you’re kicking that breakpoint moment down the road until a later turn when you will hopefully have an even better opportunity to win it.

In the scenario I described, I love playing out more threats to the board and shipping the turn without an attack. For starters, you will have stolen the momentum of the play from your opponent. You blanked their entire fourth turn by not allowing them an opportunity to use their mana.

Secondly, when your opponent untaps, they are suddenly in a bad situation. Things were bad for them last turn, and now you’ve repeated the same situation except now they are facing down even more creatures.

Now that they know that you won’t be walking into their tricks, they have to make some difficult decisions from the back foot. Do they repeat the same play of representing combat tricks and risk you simply playing more threats and passing? Do they play to the board and open up the avenue for you to get a ton of value out of your tricks?

By not attacking in the spot, you have solidified your position to ensure that when you do commit to the breakpoint moment, you are going to get a big, swingy payoff.

One last example:

This is the interaction that really got me into focusing on being more patient. I’m on the play and cast Gust Walker. My opponent passes their second turn and has W1 up.

I untap. What is the play? How many times do I have to throw away my Gust Walker and lose tremendous momentum before I start playing around the Timing? The answer is quite a few! But, I learned. Is this crazy?

If you don’t attack, you  give up the opportunity for 2 damage. If you attack, you potentially lose your amazing creature or are forced to use a pump spell to save it (which means that you cannot continue to develop your board with more creatures on the play).

I have a friend who plays on the Pro Tour whom I do a lot of testing and practicing with. We’ve talked at length about these concepts and I distinctly remember having a conversation at a Grand Prix where he lost a match and afterward told me, “I literally heard you in my head saying, ‘Don’t attack with the Gust Walker on turn 2… but I couldn’t help myself. It felt ‘too free.’ But they had the Timing and I lost because of it.”

He’s got a point. Sometimes it feels too free, or like you are giving up too much to be patient.

Nobody enjoys giving things up for free. Those 2 damage might matter down the road. How much, though? Did you lose the game by not trying to seize those 2 damage by sheer force of stubbornness?

Not attacking there only costs you the game if they didn’t have anything and you exactly needed those 2 damage to win the game. Inversely, attacking there and the opponent having the trick could cost you 6 points of damage down the road, your board advantage, and other tactical footholds.

In Constructed in particular, we are conditioned that we should always take what is in front of us because every inch is important. I don’t disagree. If it is free—take it.

But not every single inch is free. Some inches have a hefty price tag. In terms of finding better lines of play, you should always be thinking about the cost of pressing advantages and the tactical upside of being patient.

Patience applies to Constructed as well.

  • Do you want to add more creatures to the board to be swept up in a potential Fumigate?
  • Do you want to play something better on your turn into their open counterspell mana or play a weaker spell on their end step and force them into a position where they cannot use their mana effectively?
  • Do you want to ultimate that planeswalker now when they have Disallow up or do you want to keep ticking up so that you don’t lose your planeswalker if they have it?
  • Do you want to tap out for a high impact play but risk getting combo’d or burned out?

The important thing about all of these scenarios, Limited or Constructed, is that they involve insulating yourself and your position leading up to breakpoint moments in a game of Magic where a lot will be on the line.

I feel like the biggest reason why people tend to opt for aggression rather than patience is that they are afraid of being passive. Passive play is bad and tends to squander opportunities to seize an advantage.

The key here is that patient play and passive play are not the same thing. Patient play has a purpose whereas passive play does not. The examples I gave where I’m intentionally blanking my opponent’s mana and thus their turn are very deliberate to gain serious advantage in the game. There is nothing passive about it because the play is designed to press an advantage.

Only fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

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