Playing to Win versus Playing Not to Lose

One of the most interesting aspects of Magic, in my opinion, is knowing when you have to play to win and when you have to play not to lose. Playing to win the game means you make the decision that is most likely to, well, win the game. Playing not to lose means you make the decision that is less likely to cause an immediate loss. A lot of people do this intrinsically, and a lot of people have no clue they even have a choice on the matter – those are the people I’m writing this article for, because the choice between the two begins even before you show up for the tournament.

As soon as you are choosing the deck you are going to play, you are going to be faced with the choice between winning/not losing. Now this is somewhat of a personal opinion, but I generally prefer playing a deck that does not lose rather than a deck that wins, and from my experience so will most pro players. I’ve written many times about how I hate playing a deck that will lose to anyone who leaves home deciding they are going to beat you – instead, I prefer a deck that will give me more game against my bad matches, even if that means I have to work harder for my wins. Dredge is a deck that wins – it is very hit or miss – whereas Faeries is a deck that doesn’t lose, as in it has the ability to beat everything, but not as easily.

Of course, this is not to say there is no merit to either strategy – take Pro Tour San Juan, for example. The Mono Green deck from Zvi’s team was an example of a deck that wins – it just smashed you before you even knew what was going on. If you wanted to, however, you could stack your deck against it, and then it was suddenly not as good – Martin and Lucas, for example, played maindeck Chain Reaction in their RUG decks. For that tournament, though, most people were not gunning for it, which meant that its weakness was in fact not much of a weakness, and it was probably the best deck for that event (even though, contrary to popular belief, our deck had the best record *cough* *cough*). The deck we played (RUG), however, was not a deck that wins – it was a deck that doesn’t lose. The real strength of that deck was that it didn’t have an actual terrible match, and, even if people wanted to beat you, there was absolutely nothing they could do with their decks that would swing the match around. For that reason, it was a better choice for after the Pro Tour.

Basically, everyone who thinks they are better than the competition is going to try to go for a deck that doesn’t lose as opposed to a deck that wins, unless they find something that is really much better than everything else. By contrast, people who think they are worse than the competition will tend to go for a deck that wins. One thing I always hear from people that go to the Pro Tour for the first time is that they think they play worse than the Pro players and they are not going to win if they “play fair”, so they try to play a deck that wins, like Mono Red, as opposed to a grinding deck. That is actually a valid thought, but you have to make sure you are not handicapping yourself too much – if the choice is borderline you can use that as a tiebreaker but do not give up on a deck that you think is much better to go for a deck that wins because you think you’ll be outplayed.

Your next decision of winning/not losing comes when you get your opening hand. There are some decks that are fine with hands that do not lose, but sometimes you just need a hand that wins, and you have to know those times. A hand of four lands, three Lightning Bolts is unkeepable in your mono-red aggro deck against RUG, because you need a hand that wins, but the same hand is very keepable from the RUG point of view, because all you need is not to lose.

Sometimes, there are matches where you won’t be very favorable – maybe you have a bad matchup, maybe your limited deck is really bad. As such, you have to make decisions that, should they work out, will give you the best chance to win the game. To put it on percentages:

Lets say that you have a 30% chance to win a certain match with an average 6 card hand. If you keep a gambling hand, there is a 45% chance you will “get there”, and then if you do there is a 75% chance you’ll win. If you don’t get there, you auto-lose – this gives you around 33% chance to win, which is more than you had before. On the other hand, if the chance to win is 50% with a 6 card hand, and then 90% if you hit with your gambler hand, that gives you around 40%, which is not a good deal. Of course those percentages are completely made up and you can never figure them out during a game, but this is just to illustrate the point.

Tough Hands

Lets say you are playing against RDW with your Soul Sisters deck from old t2, with maindeck Kor Firewalkers, and you see an opening hand like this:


This is the kind of hand that wins – if you draw a Plains, you have to think you are a big favorite. However, you have a really good matchup here – if everything goes according to the plan, you are going to win. Therefore, there is no need to keep a hand like that and put yourself in the position where you don’t draw a land and just die, because in this match all you are hoping for is a hand that doesn’t auto-lose, so that you can have a real game (and then win like you’re supposed to), and the one-lander has the biggest potential to be a losing hand. I know it is very tempting, but I would throw this one back.

Another thing I see often is that people play against better players and then keep gambling hands because they think they need those to win, but most of the time that is just not true. Yes, I know playing against Brad Nelson is scary and he wins a lot more than he loses and you have to think he is a favorite to beat you, but part of the reason he is more likely to beat you is because you just kept that one-lander. By doing so, you are actually fueling his favoritism instead of bringing it down. Keeping this kind of hand also allows for an easy excuse (kept a one lander, didn’t get there!), but that is for weak people who need an excuse, and we all know you are not this person (besides, “mulliganed and lost!” makes for just as good as an excuse).

Most of your choices on this matter, though, will be during the game. Again, this varies a lot from player to player – I tend to lean more for the playing not to lose side, but you should always aim to get a balance between the two. As a rule of thumb, the more likely you are to win a game, the more you should play not to lose, because you are betting a lot (a game that is almost won) for very little (if you win, you win a game that was almost won anyway). As such, even a very small chance that things are going to go wrong should be enough to dissuade you from the “winning” play, and you should probably take the “not losing” play.

Taking an example from LSV’s last report, imagine you have Geth and an otherwise even board. Your opponent has no creatures that can block and kill Geth, but he has WWW up. The “winning” play here is clearly to attack – after all, you are going to deal five damage, and five damage goes a long way toward winning. However, in this situation, you don’t need to win the game – you simply need not to lose, because if the game goes on, you are going to win with your Geth, and there is no need to risk it for an upside that you absolutely don’t need. This situation is pretty obvious, but there are way more intricate situations in which you should play not to lose.

A very common occurrence of this is when you don’t leave enough blockers up – sometimes you know you are going to win the game, but then they draw and use their three cards to kill your guy, play a hasted dude and a Giant Growth and all of a sudden you are dead and wishing you had left that other guy to block. It is also common for you to play a creature you don’t need, and then get it Wrathed or stolen – I know I have won games where my only out was my opponent playing an extra, unnecessary guy, so that I could steal it and survive. Another card to keep in mind for this is Mark of Mutiny – sometimes I see people who have complete control of the game play a gigantic unnecessary dude and then they get it Marked and die when nothing else could have killed them.

I remember in Toronto when Ben and Gabe were talking about a match on Magic Online; Gabe was playing and Ben told him maybe not to attack with everything, because the only way they could possibly lose the game was to Sunblast Angel. Gabe just shrugged and sent everybody in. Then next turn their opponent played Sunblast Angel and they lost. They didn’t know the opponent had Sunblast Angel in his deck, but it was still right to play around it and not attack with everything, because the only way they could lose was to Sunblast Angel! When there is only one thing in the universe that kills you, you do everything in your power to prevent dying to that thing, no matter how unlikely it is that they have it, because you are basically freerolling it – if they don’t have it, you win anyway! A lot of the time, people are lazy and just want to end the game and save themselves the trouble to play around something, and then they get punished for it and it really is all their fault. Of course this was only a MTGO match and I believe both those players would have played around it in a serious tournament, but the example is still illustrative.

Another example of a player who should have played not to lose was Gabriel Nassif in his match against Mihara in the Worlds 2006 semi-finals. In that match, Nassif was a pretty big favorite, and at some point, after already having survived a Dragon (or a Dragonstorm, I don’t recall), he tapped out to return a Martyr of Sands to play with Proclamation of Rebirth, when he already had a Martyr in play and a Remand in hand. Then on his turn Mihara topdecked the exact card he needed (jeez, I wonder where I’ve seen this before) which, together with the other three perfect cards in combination, enabled him to Dragonstorm for a bunch and kill Nassif. Was that unlikely to happen? Yes, it was – he needed to have those specific three cards in hand, and he needed to draw the last card. But it was, nonetheless, something that could have been avoided – Nassif did not need to return his Martyr that turn; all he needed to do was to sit on his Remand and on his Martyr that was already in play, and then make sure he was not going to die. As long as he did not die that turn or very soon, the game would eventually spiral out of Mihara’s reach. What he did instead was try to put the nail in the coffin by bringing a second Martyr, but that was not really necessary at that point.

Playing not to lose

In my opinion, the best way to play not to lose is (like a lot else in Magic) to put yourself into your opponent’s position and figure out what he can possibly draw to beat you. I don’t care how lucky he would have to be to have all those cards, if you are going to win the game and there is a combination of cards that beats you, you should probably play around it. To do that, though, you must actually know how to devise a combination that cards that wins, which is what you have to do when you play to win.

When you are losing, the exact opposite scenario applies – you bet very little (a game that you were likely going to lose) and the upside is tremendous (you win a game you were not winning). Therefore, you don’t need very good odds of actually succeeding to make the play profitable. The way you play to win is you basically take any small chance you have, and clutch to it as if your life depends on it (because, well, it does). You pretend like everything that has to happen for you to win is going to happen.

Imagine the scenario where your opponent has a 19/19 and you are at 20 and have a 1/1; They are at 10 life, and you have no removal in your deck, but you have an Armored Ascension with 9 Plains out. In this situation, you just have to take it when they attack – you are never going to draw something that deals with his guy, or a bigger guy to block it, so the situation is just going to repeat itself until they draw something or you blank, and then you’re going to die. By not blocking, you have to get lucky and draw Armored Ascension as well as hoping they don’t play a blocker or a removal, but that is the only chance you have! If the only chance is you drawing Armored Ascension, you play as if you were going to draw Armored Ascension – if you don’t draw it, then you are going to lose anyway, so you don’t lose anything. by playing like that.

Sometimes you not only have to hope you draw certain cards, but you also need your opponent to play in a certain way. In that case, act as if he was going to play like that! If you need him to miss a point with Cunning Sparkmage, then make sure you play in a way that, if he does miss the point, you capitalize on it. Basically, just figure out what needs to happen for you to win, and then make sure you do win if that happens. When you play not to lose, you do the same but for your opponent – figure what has to happen for them to win, and then try to play in a way that you do not lose even if that happens.

Though I generally like playing not to lose more, and I think it is more often the correct approach, I think I am better at playing to win – I can devise a lot of complicated things that have to happen for me to win a match. This often results in some awkward chump blocking, removing a card that seems worse than another card, attacking with my 2/2 only to be attacked by my opponent’s 5/2 on the next turn – for an outside observer this might seem really random, but most of the times when I do that it is because I think I am not going to win the game, and I figured that my best chance requires me to make this sequence of plays this turn (or I am making a mistake, that is also an option).

A very good example of playing to win as opposed to not losing is Craig Jone’s Lightning Helix play. For those who don’t know, Jones was playing Olivier Ruel and Olivier attacked with a couple guys. Mike Flore’s suggested play (he was doing coverage for some reason) was to burn the guy in the attack step, so that he could survive for an extra turn. Craig Jones didn’t choose this line, though – he took the damage, going to a very low life, and instead burned Olivier. Then he untapped, drew Lightning Helix and used that to finish Olivier off (and in case you are wondering, this is where Randy Buehler’s OH MY GOD IT’S LIGHTNING HELIX comes from).

Flores’ play is a clear play not to lose – you are going to prolong the game for as much as you can. In this position, however, playing not to lose doesn’t accomplish anything – you don’t lose now, but you lose three turns later, and we don’t get points for taking longer to lose (unless you are going to run out of time, in which case you actually do get points). Craig’s play was a play to win – if he fails, he loses the game in that next draw step as opposed to in the next three draw steps, but he was going to lose the game anyway! He probably figured out that he had a much better chance to just topdeck a burn spell than to draw the three perfect cards in a row that he would need to win the game in the position he would have put himself by killing a creature, and then he got lucky and drew the card he needed, but if he hadn’t played in exactly this way all his luck would have been for nothing.

Another example is my Top 8 match in San Juan against Josh Utter-Leyton. It was game five, and I attacked with a Nirkana Revenant along with some other guys. Josh blocked one of the small guys, and then I pumped the Shade and he took lethal damage. Did he miscount my mana to lose the quarterfinals of the Pro Tour? No, he didn’t. Then why did he not chump block the Shade? Because he was playing to win. By blocking the small guy and eating it, he gives himself the scenario where I either forget to pump or fear some random card and don’t pump, and then he can topdeck a bunch of guys in a row and I can topdeck a bunch of lands and he can actually win. Of course, the chance of this all happening at the same time is probably smaller than 1%. If he chumps the Shade, however, then he lives for a while but dies on the following turn, and there is no amount of things that can go his way that will make him win other than me having a heart attack, which is a much smaller percentage.

Yet another example comes again from Gabriel Nassif’s match in the Worlds 2006 Top 8, the same match against Mihara in the semis. In this scenario, Nassif had 6 lands in play, none in hand and had not played a land for the turn (he had in fact not played a land for many turns). Mihara had lethal damage in play, and Nassif had a full hand that included Compulsive Research and Wrath of God. Nassif felt that he needed to keep making land drops or he would not win the long game, and decided that he would rather play Compulsive Research there and try to find a seventh land to play Wrath of God that turn – if he misses, he dies. He hit, and then Wrathed Mihara’s board (I wish I could say “and won the game” but I don’t remember who actually won this game). The point here is that he felt, from the way the game was going, that if he played not to lose and just Wrathed he would actually lose in the long run – he figured he would have better odds to win the game by hitting a land there, and the fear of an immediate loss didn’t stop him from going for the “to win” play.

One thing you should worry about, though, is not overdoing this so that, by trying to play around all the bad scenarios, you cause a bad scenario to happen – sometimes you think you are so favored that you can’t lose unless they have Sunblast Angel, but by not attacking you now put yourself into a position to lose to Shatter instead. Whenever you play not to lose, make sure you are not giving up too much of your advantage to the point where it’s no longer worth it.

One example of this comes from our last team draft in GP Toronto; Luis was on my team and playing against Gabe, and Luis attacked with a bunch of guys, including Golem Artisan, and enough mana to pump for lethal damage. Gabe had five lands and two Myrs, and UR open, and didn’t block anything. We knew from the draft that Gabe had Platinum Emperion (since it was teams and the person feeding him saw it, but not the person next to him), so Gabe’s play made perfect sense – he was so behind on the board that he could not possibly win if he blocked, so he had to hope that Luis would not pump for fear of something, and then he would be able to untap and play the Platinum Emperion and try to win the game with that. If the Myr blocks, he is back to 6 mana and dies next turn anyway, so he made the “play to win” that he had to.

Then, Luis didn’t pump for lethal damage – he said he was trying to play around Disperse or Shatter, and he was so far ahead that he didn’t need to push it. Then Gabe (who didn’t have an instant) untapped and didn’t draw a land to play Emperion, and died anyway (justice). Later on, Luis said he should not have tried to play around anything – because he was too far ahead, he could afford to get blown out by Shatter/Disperse, and by playing not to lose instead of going for the throat he actually gave Gabe an out for the game.

I know this seems kinda obvious and me saying “only play around things when you can afford to play around things” does not help much in this matter, but there really is no definite way to know when you should or shouldn’t do it, and all I can do is give you some general scenarios to try to help you think for yourself when the situation comes up – basically, if playing not to lose makes you actually lose to more (or more likely) things, don’t do it.

So, to sum it up, whenever you think you are in a very bad position, assume that everything that has to go your way does go your way, and then play to win in that scenario – no use prolonging your loss. If you are in a very good position, try to do the same for your opponent – assume that everything that has to go his way goes his way, and then try to prevent that. If you do both those things, you will certainly reduce those “Jesus my opponent drew the three cards he needed to win the game”, and at the same time you will increase those stories for everyone else.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and see you next week!


91 thoughts on “Playing to Win versus Playing Not to Lose”

  1. I don’t know where to post this, so I’ll post it here.

    A large part of the reason Channel Fireball has become so popular recently are its videos. These are the best way to reach the masses of magic fans in an entertaining medium, much for the same reason a film is a more efficient means of reaching large numbers of people than a book (At least in the age groups that magic players largely fall under). People really, really like those videos, and many come here just to see them. It’s nice to chill out, and watch LSV or whoever draft, even if they screw a few things up. It’s a lot of the fun of drafting, without the money, frustration or risk.

    Videos have been very scarce recently, with the exception of TSG’s drafts which have been fairly low-quality. I like TSG as a person, but I expect better from anyone in my circle of drafting friends. This site needs to start posting more videos, soon, or it’s going to start losing some people. It was even promised that we would see many, many videos, and they just haven’t been here.

    I can understand ‘We’re flying around playing magic tournaments’ or whatever, but that is an explanation, not an excuse. It’s a problem that needs a solution. As a side note, posting videos of standard is definitely a step in the right direction.

  2. This was a great article. Very insightful on the thought processes that really help make you better at magic. Keep it coming!

  3. Great article. I have a problem where I play around what an opponent has and I miss damage for fear of that block and agony warp, or whatever else trick and just flat out lose a lot because of it. Or slow rolling dudes to not get wrathed. I guess I need to re-examine my play.

  4. @chris thomas

    “start posting more videos, soon, or it’s going to start losing some people”
    No, they won’t be losing viewers, people will always tune in to see whatever amount of videos they post.

    Stop acting like a spoiled child, there have been a lot of videos posted. Even if we ignore the huge timespan when there were ZERO strategy videos, take a look back around Zen, there was maybe one draft per week. The content has very good, and quite frankly it’s a little disgusting to see people like you come on here and demand MORE.

    This is all free, stop whining and enjoy what’s available. When I first saw your post, I assumed it would be you praising CFB for the increase in video content, to my shock it was quite the opposite.

    TLDR: there has been more video content now, than ever before on CFB, why are you complaining about there not being enough?

  5. Person says something that is aesthetically negative. People respond with torches.

    Say what you will. There was a period of time, probably not too long ago where there were videos going up every day. I feel like recently, this has not been the case, and it’s been disappointing. I mostly check in here to see video content, because it’s more entertaining than a strategy article, and my needs have not been met recently. I know that I am not alone.

    You should not snap respond to complaints with torches. I say something because I really like Channel Fireball, not because I’m just mindlessly hating. I remember LSV posting a ‘State of the Union’ type thing where he essentially held up a sign that read ‘More Videos!’ I feel like that has not been as spot on recently as it could have been.

    I’ve checked out the video archive, and realized it may just be a problem of advertising. There were a few videos in there I didn’t even know about, and I check the site daily. I suppose updating the feed more is a possible fix. Again though, I speak from a place of caring, not from a place of hate. I’m a part of a decently sized market in the magic community of people who play semi-competitively: We enjoy strategy, but the fun is really more important than anything else, especially when it comes to reading magic websites. I check the site almost exclusively for videos, and for the past two weeks or so it’s been underwhelming.

    Take it for what you will. To the powers that be, I’m just trying to offer some informed advice. To everyone else, haters goin’ hate.

  6. You can’t play the martyr after you act like an ingrate.

    There has been a video uploaded everyday. Magic TV, Magic TV extra,12 matches(from two perspectives) of standard matchups(over 2 days) and a TSG draft.

    That’s just from this last week.

    Just stop acting like an imbecile, you can’t find content like this anywhere on the web, and it’s 100% free.

  7. Oh, and conley’s deck doctor.

    It really takes someone like you, to make me realize how great this site is.

  8. @chris just in the last week they’ve uploaded to the youtube account…

    A Conley draft that just went up
    Conley’s first deck doctor
    4 matchups of standard with LSV vs. Brad
    2 TSG Drafts
    The conclusion of the All Star draft from 6 perspectives
    2 uploads of sealed deck from Martell and LSV that were previously on here

    If that’s not enough video content in a week’s time what the hell is?

  9. So salty.

    -Magic TV has been a lot of nothing recently, I don’t think I need to say much more than the main topic of the last installment was how much basic land costs to dealers. They even acknowledged on the show (With subtlety, that you may have missed) that it wasn’t the most enlightening of topics.

    -The TSG drafts were, sadly, awful. I don’t like being this negative, but I feel as though the site would be better if they just… weren’t posted. Again, I don’t dislike the guy, but some of the choices are just painful to watch.

    -I did not realize the standard videos were videos, as videos are normally advertised in the feed. I assumed they were articles, which I was not interested in reading. As videos, however, they were quite fun, I just watched some of it. This exemplifies one of the points that I was trying to make- Videos > Text. This was good, and my comment about standard videos being good was in reference to Conley’s deck doctor video, the only video of the last week that I enjoyed (Aside from the standard videos, which I did not realize were videos).

    Acting like an imbecile… I think mindlessly flaming people on the internet who are just trying to make something they like better is acting like an imbecile. Not posting a rational critique. Typically, imbeciles are the first people to throw the word ‘imbecile’ around.

  10. A word on the all-stars drafts: It’s more like one video, than 8. I like the idea, but it’s not efficient from a business standpoint. After the first 2 videos, the utility of the additional videos decreases substantially, whereas if you just had all the people do their own drafts it would probably be more entertaining. It’s definitely a good idea, and it’s definitely fun to make and watch, but most people are not going to want to watch all 8.

    The same is true for the standard 1v1 videos between Brad and LSV. The utility of the second video decreases substantially from the first, because you already know everything that happens. This is the same reason most people only watch movies once. What you’re producing is 2 videos, but it’s more like 1.3-1.5 videos, because you’ll notice a decrease in how entertaining the second one is.

    In magic terms, think of non-jace planeswalkers. The first one is very good, the second one is not quite as good because you may draw 2, the third is often unplayable, and four is normally just bad. There is a decrease in utility as more and more of the card is added to the deck, even if the first one is amazing. This is why most decks only play 2~ of most planeswalkers. This is probably not very revealing to anyone, but it’s a good parallel to my point- These multiple-CF videos have the same effect. The first is sweet, the second is ok, the third is getting to the point where it’s boring and the fourth is probably never going to get turned on.

    I’m glad you all like the site- I do too. I just see some problems that could be fairly easily fixed. You can say ‘Look at all this stuff!’ but I can similarly point out what we haven’t seen for over a week:

    -A draft video from someone competent (Initially the main drawing point of this site)
    -A Magic TV episode that was interesting (Sorry)

    Kind of a big deal. Anyway, hopefully someone understand what I’m trying to get at.

  11. I never flamed you, you just take everything personally and feel the need to project yourself as being above anyone else when really you’re the one complaining over free content and calling other people imbeciles and torch wavers. The only area of videos that has been lacking is MagicTV, you’re right, and that’s been mainly because LSV has been in Europe. I’ve been disappointed by that too but the sheer volume of gameplay videos uploaded in the last month makes up for it. And once again you keep making the personal insults assuming no one else understands subtlety?

    I also don’t understand how you put yourself as being semi-casual if several hours of video uploaded a day isn’t enough for you when I consider myself a pretty big fan of the site and with school, work and other obligations I have to play catchup with the videos most of the time.

  12. You’re making me sound like a broken record but, you can’t act like an ingrate, then try and play martyr.

    You’re ungrateful for the FREE content, that is uploaded in huge quantities.

    I pity you, and I truly hope one day you’ll be able to get over yourself enough to realize how much great content is being placed at your feet. Just because the impact lands can have on FNM doesn’t interest you, it might interest other people. You’re not the only person that watches this content.

    I won’t be replying again, because quite frankly this has gone on long enough, I’ve said what I think and to elaborate anymore would be an act of futility.

  13. @ Chris

    Like other people have said, we have been posting a very solid schedule of videos lately. I’m sorry you don’t like some of the content, but we are posting more videos now than we pretty much ever have, and that trend will continue, so keep checking back.

    Can we shift the discussion back to PV’s excellent article? I think it does a superb job of explaining a big concept that many players have trouble grasping, and does it in a way that everyone can understand.

  14. Feel free to delete everything I said and the things people responded. I just felt a little unsatisfied, when in the past the site did a very good job of giving me exactly what I wanted. As I said, my posts were more of ‘Things could be better’ than ‘Things are bad.’ I think last week was kinda bad, but that’s neither here nor there.

    Everyone seems to disagree with me, so stay the course I suppose.

  15. great great article PV! many times i’ve been trying to explain to my buds why and how PROs keep their win pct up by not keeping gambling hands… well sometimes they might once in a blue moon. but you’re totally right about less skilled players often fueling the PROs win pct by keeping questionable hands. finally i got something to shove down their throat. hahaha thanx again PV!

  16. PV,

    The article is great and the concept makes perfect sense to me when discussing how you play but I’m struggling more with it affecting decks and deck choices.

    Would you say that aggro in general is a “play to win” archetype and that control is a “play not to lose”? And where would combo fit into that? Obviously you can’t just pigeon hole these archetypes and there are far more types of decks than just these, but while something like RDW or Quest for the Holy Relic decks are clearly play to win decks, an aggro deck like Elves or Boros tends to be more resilient to hate. So that would make them play not to lose as opposed to the play to win?

  17. Great article as always PV.


    I think in the broadest of terms, aggro and combo are win decks where as control is a not lose deck. Midrange can take the form of either deck but is worse at any one area than a deck built to be one thing at all times.

  18. So if a not lose deck is more consistent it’s understandable why you prefer to play it at a long tournament, so when is it “safe” to play the win deck? Does it have to be when a deck is a clear best in the format like Dark Depths?

  19. Chris Thomas:

    I really liked your opening sentence how you said that the masses of people come here for the videos.
    I liked it because I expected you to continue with: “But no Video could ever provide as much strategic depths as am awesome strategy artictle like this. Thanks PV for for yet another well written and informative article.”
    But instead you wrote the ******** I read in a while. You sir are a retard.

    The article was a great read and I prefer an article like this over 10 random Draft Videos.

  20. @Adam: “when is it “safe” to play the win deck? Does it have to be when a deck is a clear best in the format like Dark Depths?”

    That is up to you. The article provided you with some tools to help you with a decision, but ultimately it is up to you to make the choice between a deck’s raw power and it’s consistency. There can never be a Matrix for deckchoices.

  21. Hey Chris Thomas I hate videos I love articles, written articles that i can read that don’t take 4 hours to watch instead I read a 10-15min article like this it is perfect even if I know everything in it it helps me review my knowledge and maybe I can leverage it into a PTQ win somehow – I say this because of where you have chosen to post your comment, the most inappropriate place ever, because this WRITTEN article is very good and you imply that it is less entertaining and interesting then a video which is just a complete and utter lie and I hate you

    Watch the language please – LSV

  22. @Chris Thomas

    bro i got nothing against you cuz you’re entitled to an opinion but maybe you can go beyond yourself and just appreciate what LSV and the crew have put up for you and the rest of the Magic Community. the site offers a lot of articles and insights and (by your definition)…few videos from several of the best Magic players in the entire world. and all that at the very very low cost of…NOTHING. yes sir, it costs NADA, ZILCH, ZERO. i guess the majority just feels that you don’t appreciate these things when people like me all the way from the Philippines get little chance to talk and meet these PROs but now get a chance to take a peek inside their minds without flying around the world spending thousands of dollars to attend each GP or PT just to get to see and talk to them.

  23. Good read, even though I felt I already understood it. Takes a good writer to go over material already known and still make it interesting.

  24. i think i would keep that one land monowhite hand vs rdw. oh my god what is happening to me :(((((

  25. This article was beyond awesome, one of the best in a long while on CF.

    The only criticism I have is that some of your examples are super-duper next level, and would rarely occur outside of pro v pro matches. Youve said in previous articles that some plays will only be made where both people respect one another; for example, where you attacked with Nirkana Rev into a chump blocker. The only time the Rev wouldnt be blocked would be at a PT!

  26. Fantastic article!

    “When there is only one thing in the universe that kills you, you do everything in your power to prevent dying to that thing, no matter how unlikely it is that they have it, because you are basically freerolling it – if they don’t have it, you win anyway!” – while I fullheartedly agree, isn’t there a flip side to the coin? Playing around things usually comes at the cost of time (in Magic terms: turns and/or phases spent), and so by playing around a Sunblast Angel you indirectly play into the odds of him topdecking it a turn later. Let’s say your opponent has 1 card in hand, 20 left in the library and appropriate mana to cast the angel; the odds of that one card being Sunblast is 5.0%, and if it’s not the odds of him drawing it the next turn is 5.3%. All very marginal, and there are of course other factors to consider such as interpreting whether he seems to have it based on his past plays, but barring that doesn’t it seem strictly better to play as if he has to topdeck it? To the extent that there is no tempo loss involved with playing around something obviously that has to be the right play, but if there’s an actual tempo – and there’s a statistically higher chance of drawing into the problem than him actually having it – isn’t the best play to simply not play around it?

    On the merits of figuring out whether you play not to lose or play to win, I agree conceptually but my issue is that of visualising the actual plays. Whether by lack of practice, knowledge of the game or (God forbid) lack of braincells I usually know when I have to play not to lose, but I’m having a hard time sculpting the game as it needs to progress in order for me not to lose – if that makes any sense. What do you recommend one could do to improve on this area?

  27. Guys, Chris Thomas is a PERFECT example of successful troll is successful. just ignore it and it will go away.

    Awesome article PV! I thought, when i read the title, that it was going to be about how you should never play not to lose, like i was taught, but your definition of playing not to lose is different than mine. i definitely understand where you’re coming from with it.

  28. I have been using this concept for many years and now I finally see an article about it. Playing to win or not to lose sounds too simplistic to have any meaning when you first introduce it to someone with moderately deep understanding on the game, but it really is a concept you can use to tie together all the theory aspects you are actively using (Like you said most people propably are already using it subconsciously). It has alot common ground with the Who’s the beatdown? -theory and theories alike, but playing to win or not to lose can be applied to pretty much every aspect of the game.
    I moslty play limited so I’ll share a few examples from there.
    I adapt my play and drafting style a lot depending on the pod I see myself in. In fnm I mostly play not to lose and in GP or PTQ I mostly play to win. It’s not all about being aggro or control. Also starting hand range variates on the match up I see myself in. No matter who I’m against I need to get lucky with a bad deck and need not to get unlucky with a bad deck.
    To race or not to race depends on the assumption I have about my and opposing deck. If I’m going to win the long game, I halt the race (play not to lose) and if I need to pull out win fast I play to win.
    Against a clearly better player I usually go into “to win-mode” (maybe more than I should) and also try to not get tangled in the mental game (Not trying to read signals as they may be misfeeds).
    I see “to win or not to lose”-concept (TWoNtL) often as a spectrum of desperateness. The more desperate the situation is, the more you need to gamble in order to have a shot in the game.
    All in all I think TWoNtL concept is for me a great tool to stop myself to think why I am figuring out things and how do I apply my knowledge about the match up, meta-game, opponent and game state.
    Great article, keep up the good work, PV!

  29. @Chris you’re forgetting that some people arent watching draft / standard / legacy videos for fun but to improve their own playing skills and that’s why I think all stars draft and standard with both side POV is awesome. You can actually follow the line of play and see where did the misplays happen and what could have been done otherwise or not.

    For example in eldrazi ramp vs boros LSV could have used summoning trap at opponents combat phase after attackers have been declared and hit a creature from there instead of walking into mark of mutiny with kozilek to empty table.

  30. exelent article again PV
    congratulations for it
    so huum i am the guy from ligamagic that u asked about the photo
    i recently added you on orkut, hope u accept it

    i always read your articles here
    and i love all of them
    hope to see you on the legacy this weekend

    so keep up the good work
    i really want to meet you someday
    cya ^^

  31. I would have been your best friend forever if you said:

    So, the moral of the story is, if you’re better than everyone play midrange.

  32. @Chris: Are you delusional? Go to their YouTube page. There are LOTS of new videos. Stop trolling.

    @PV: Nice article. I always have two major themes running through my head when playing Magic… Who’s the Beatdown? And Play to Win/Not Lose.

  33. As someone who played in 10+ pts but never quite “got there” on the tour itself I definetly take something from the article. More precisely, I think that putting words on concepts that you might understand intuitively on some level both helps me think about it and analyze it better and it also helps me discuss it with other people.

    “who’s the beatdown” got nothing on this article. Good job.

  34. Great article. These always make me think of real life situations. Recently, in round two of a tournament I was applying the beats with vamps against a RW control deck. He had a Cunning Sparkmage in play, and fetched up a collar to rfg with a 4/4 dragon. Now, I knew that, given time, his Koth on the board would just kill me. If I played the gatekeeper in my hand, he would get back collar and that would kill me too. My only option was to gatekeeper him and hope he missed a trigger, so I cast gatekeeper and then, as he was putting his dragon in the yard, I tapped my guys sideways to attack Koth. He then nodded and put his Koth in the yard, and I knew I’d won the game.

    It never feels good to rules lawyer, and I certainly don’t recommend it for FNM, but when you’re spending hundreds of dollars on a plane ticket it seems fine to play to all your outs.

  35. @Thomas I actually believe this article constructs further upon the bases of “who’s the beatdown”. It sort of creates a more general theory about the beatdown, as in “sligh strategies are a special case of playing to win”. It also adds some kind of flexibility to the “beatdown” theory making it more dynamic, basically re-evaluating your goals every time you have to ask yourself about your odds at winning.

    I like the articles on this site a lot more than the videos. My ISP gives me a bunch of crap sometimes and videos tend to lag. But what I like the most is that when someone like PV has to sit down and focus on writing and getting to conclussions instead of just sitting and recording a game, he can deliver the essence of the process he uses to win, which is what helps the most (for me at least).

    Good job sir.

  36. Always great PV.

    Side note – some of us have crappy computers and/or internet connections and videos = suckage. I love the written articles and hope Ocho never goes video with his drafts.

  37. Feeding the Troll

    I actually hate the videos, as I only browse this site on my iPhone and they don’t work.

    Anyway, good article. I also like some of Kai’s older plays. “My only out is to topic morphling” and so he plays like there’s a morphling on top if his deck (there always is!) Great stuff.

  38. Seems to me that this space should be used for emphasizing why this article was awesome instead of complaining that it wasn’t a video.

  39. @Alash (altho you might never read this)

    I think the point is to always play in a way where a sunblast angel isn’t going to kill you. Sunblast angel isn’t really gonna hurt if you just attack with one guy a turn. If Sunblast Angel really is the only card that could end your game, then you play in a way that you always minimise the effect it would have on the board, so even if he does topdeck it, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

  40. That makes a certain amount of sense. My worry though is that if you’re only attacking with one guy a turn instead of (say) two, you’re effectively giving him more draw steps to topdeck the Angel which – whether it kills your team or not – is likely to swing the game in his favor. In the end it comes down to simple math, but as I outlined the probabilities actually suggest that in some cases it’s better to just ignore the off-chance of him having the angel in hand.

    It’s certainly an interesting discussion…

  41. PV,
    Most of your advice depends on 1) there only being a single way to win/lose, and 2) me being able to identify it as the only way to win/lose. This seems unrealistic. Even if I can only think of one combination of cards that beats me, how can I be sure I’m not forgetting something? For example, I’m sure Sunblast Angel was the only single card that could beat Gabe, but what if he holds back, then the opponent plays EOT shatter, then untaps and plays two skinrenders. Now maybe Gabe can lose a fair game down the road w/o ever seeing a bomb rare. Also, like Alash said, maybe holding back allows the opponent to play a removal and topdeck the angel in a turn or two. You touched on this at the end of the article, but I’d like to see a follow-up article about how to choose the best play when things aren’t so clear cut, or when I can’t come up with all the ways to win/lose by myself (maybe I don’t know all the cards in a limited format).

    Responding to Chris Thomas,
    Everybody is wrong to criticize his post. Its important for readers to give feedback about what they like and don’t like. Otherwise, how will the writers know what to post? Personally, I don’t watch the videos and would like to see more articles like this. Even though this article was long, it was quality information the whole way through. I hate sifting through a two-hour video for small pieces of useful information. I’d like to see the drafting videos have a written summary of the decklist, final record, and highlights/lessons.

  42. Great article in general PV! I find the introduction being a campain for aggro and combo decks being worse than control decks. You might be right, but then again, my friend can’t play control and is really good at maximizing his aggro deck. I get the point of win plays and not lose play. My opinion is when you understand a deck and the way it works, it allows you to see more not lose play with it.

  43. @Clouds I don’t think it’s a campaing against aggro and combo. It just states the fact that pro players tend to play control decks at the end of the day because it offers you more chances to outwit an opponent and control decks are normally quite resilient against hate.

    I personally believe you cannot aspire to be a good control player until you know how a combo or aggro deck ticks. The error I see more often is for people to start tackling new metagames -or even starting competitive play- without properly understanding what aggro and combo has to offer. In my metagame I’ve often seen new players start playing control because it’s the “smart deck” and getting run over by a bunch of tiny critters. After noticing this I started playing aggro -keeping both Flores and Dave Price as references- trying to find the intelligence behind aggro. I must tell you that, around here at least, I rarely get to the stage of playing control because most “control players” really don’t get it.

    In short, I always tell the new guys that “a wannabee aggro player has a much better chance at early success than a wannabee control player”.

  44. Awesome article.
    I feel I’m much better at playing to win than playing not to lose, which is very problematic since I play controllish decks for the most part. I just get lazy when thinking about outs, really need to work on that :(. Any tips?

    About the videos, I personally don’t like them since they take WAY more time than an article, and time is pretty much the most valuable thing we have. But I understand people like them as I see a lot of them uploaded, unlike Chris Trollmas said.

  45. Great article PV.

    Me, I’m a guy who plays to wins, for all my errors. For some reason I’ve always struggled with the playing not to lose concept, because when I try that style I do lose.

    Contrast with that with my decent record with playing to win decks, and I know that is the style for me, for example last year using RDW I go into a lot of matches knowing that on paper I’m not the favourite but a lot of peoples decks on MTGO or IRL had such poor manabases that I used to pick up tonnes of wins off decks that despite playing not lose were overpowered or didn’t use their resources right because they hadn’t played enough matches with their decks.

    Sometimes it’s better to stick with what you know or feel right with then what ‘you should’.


  46. @alash

    I think that key to that analysis is that the tempo lost by attacking with fewer guys has to be balanced against the effects of the Angel. As PV stated at the end of the article (which was excellent. Thank you, PV), there is always a tension between the two choices. In the Angel example the difference was playing in a way that gets you blown out in order to cut down on draw steps is a mistake if that is the only conceivable way the you lose the current game. Obciously, the answer is not “attack with your worst creature only so Sunblast angel doesn’t gain value” is not right, as a 4/5 flyer is pretty good all on its own. However, “Swing with the team on the open board every time, ’cause, you know, he probably doesn’t have it” isn’t right either, because it opens you up to getting simply owned if does come down.

    As always, PV demonstrates that I don’t think enough during my matches, and that’s something to work on regardless. Also, these situations seem like a subset of “Who’s the Beatdown” in that it’s about knowing your role in a given situation. Tough choices that should be discussed. Thanks again for the great site and article, CF.

  47. And I demonstrate that I can’t type.

    Obviously. “is not right” should be deleted.

    take typing in school, kids. It helps.

  48. Great Article. I really like how your articles lately have been putting things that i do instinctively into text. This allows to me then analyze and refine those techniques and put it into something rational instead of something subconcious.

  49. @Reider

    “Most of your advice depends on 1) there only being a single way to win/lose”

    PV probably used singular win/loss conditions because that is the simplest way one can explain it.

    The thing is, this is usually pretty close to true. A good number of games turn into a locked board state and if you’ve ever watched an LSV video this is exactly what he does every time this happens. He lists out all the cards he can think of that would screw him over, and then plays accordingly (if he is ahead [remember, if they don’t do something – you win, you’re ahead!]) or lists out the cards he needs to draw to trump the locked board state/sneak in for the kill. Usually it’s only a few specific cards that actually matter in a situation like that.

    One thing I think PV could have hit in this article is how this theory of playing to win vs playing not to lose affects how you use your removal.

    If you are ahead (ex. both in topdeck mode, he’s dead on board you aren’t) most likely the only way they can beat you is to topdeck a sick bomb. I have seen this mistake happen a number of times: the guy that is ahead draws his removal (ex turn to slag) and the guy that is behind (We’ll call him Behind) draws something mediocre like a moriok reaver or other 1-2 toughness creature that will trade with most of Ahead’s creatures. And Ahead will remove it to get a few more points of damage in – speeding up his clock by only one turn. This can put you in a bad situation fast if you are so quick to throw your removal away just to hope they don’t topdeck. What if he drew that Sunblast Angel or Hoard Smelter Dragon or Geth, or any of the beefy 5 toughness guys next turn and not only would they stabilize – Ahead COULD NOT WIN. Too bad he threw away his turn to slag for a few extra damage… The point is while it could potentially leave them creatureless and they just top deck land and Ahead wins, this play has the potential to straight up lose the game for Ahead.

    “For example, I’m sure Sunblast Angel was the only single card that could beat Gabe, but what if he holds back, then the opponent plays EOT shatter, then untaps and plays two skinrenders.”

    It’s all situational. If he has those 2 cards in hand and the mana to do that (and by your example he’s also playing WBR and has at least 4 swamps in play…) you aren’t in the “only sunblast angel can beat me right now” category anyways. You are more likely in the “it is very likely that he is going to have stuff that will kill me” zone – and you probably should go for the kill assuming your creatures are weaker overall.

    “… when I can’t come up with all the ways to win/lose by myself (maybe I don’t know all the cards in a limited format).”

    Read the spoilers. Play more. You put yourself at a disadvantage by not knowing this. I’m sure every pro on this site probably got owned by a dispense justice at one point or another early into Scars, and now they all play around it because they have learned the cards.

  50. Great article PV, I’m going to think about this more and more in all of my MTG matches now.

    Thanks as always!

  51. Fantastic article PV, I haven’t learned so much from a strategy based article in a while. Definitely going to recommend this to several people.

    Keep up the great work.

  52. I recommend reading Sway by the Brafman brothers. They have an excellent chapter on playing to win rather than playing to not lose. Great article!

  53. Playing not to lose is safe falls in controls category. Playing to win is aggro. Learning to transition between the play styles is pro, as is team fireball. good article.

  54. I always liked the Zvi Moshowitz school of mulliganing, and he would keep that 3 Firewalker/1land hand against RDW every time. That hand gets there 70% of the time. The math doesn’t lie. Your chances of mulling into 6 lands are only slightly worse than mulling into an average hand. This is the intersection of poker and Magic that led Dave Williams to winning millions, and he got started in Magic. You have to do the math when you mulligan.

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  56. Another great article PV, thanks! I already played this way to some extent, your article will help me do so more, and better.

    A big revelation for me was watching Martin Juza play in a recent Grand Prix, if I’m remembering right. In a draft round, he was at 3 life, but in no danger on-board. He swung in with flyers to take his opponent down to 3 also, and totally dead on board next turn. But he knew his opponent was splashing red for two Lightning Bolts. He used a black removal spell on his own Phoenix to deal 3 to everyone and make the game a draw! He thought his chances in a totally fresh game were better than taking the risk of his opponent topdecking a mountain, having the bolt in hand, and stealing the game.

    I’m not sure it was actually the highest EV play, but it was clearly a case of “playing to not lose”. He did go on to win the match, and the Grand Prix. Brian Kibler said Juza plays TOO cautious sometime, but it was great for me to get to see an example of that style of play to that extreme, he played to not lose in other games and situations too. I was watching it on ggslive and learned a lot about how to play that way, which gives me more tools in my skillset.

    Looking forward to your next strategy article, yours are some of the very best on the internet right now.

  57. First off, a correction – in Nassif’s example, the card he had in hand was Faith’s Fetters (which he could have cast to live), and then he actually drew both the land and the WOG. Doesn’t really change much (if anything makes for a better example) but might as well get my facts straight.

    @Adam: As Conley said, in general aggro and combo are “to win” decks, and control decks are “not to lose”, but you can have a lot of things that are somewhat in between – for example, Dark Depths was a “to win” deck, but once you added the thopter foundry combo, it had both a to win and a to not lose element. Faeries was a not to lose deck but was not necessarily control and you often played it as aggro.

    @Martin: Sorry, I think we can no longer be friends 🙁

    @Alash: again, that depends on the scenario. If the only card that beats you is actually angel, and by playing around it you don’t end up losing to something more common, then you should do it. In your double skinrender example, maybe you know he doesnt have one cuz if he did he would have played it already?
    If by playing around it you actually lose to it next turn, then don’t do it, but most of the time if you can play in a way that makes you survive angel then you’ll generally survive it next turn as well. But if it just gives him more turns to draw it, then just don’t do it.

    @Raiderrabit: I honestly can’t tell you how to do that for every case; I know that a lot of the times it’s not clear cut, but each case is always a different case and I’m not sure if I can say anything else to help in this regard. Sorry! (but you always HAVE to know every card, even if you don’t think of it you have to know it exists)

    @Ranger: agreed, the use of removal in limited is often a good example of that, and many games are lost because people play them “to win” when they should just wait. I should have talked a bit about this, I forgot

  58. “Another card to keep in mind for this is Mark of Mutiny – sometimes I see people who have complete control of the game play a gigantic unnecessary dude and then they get it Marked and die when nothing else could have killed them.”

    somebody clearly watched LSV vs FFreaks video matchups.

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  60. Nice article. 7 years ago I played “to win” in the 8th and final round of the Detroit Grand Prix. I was paired against Matt Rubin a pro tour player. We were both 5-2. I was playing Mono white and he was playing Goblins. It was game 3. I thought if I won I had a shot at top 64 and day 2. I went 1st. I played a silver knight on turn 2 (2/2 pro red 1st strike) that kept his goblins from attacking me. Then I decided to go for it. I played my hand as if mono red drew no burn. I Played a turn 3 morph creature (The Exalted Angel 4/5 flying lifelink) I waited for him to burn it but he didn’t. I proceeded to morph her and make the score 16-24 in my favor on turn 4. I played a hard cast 2nd Exhalted Angel on turn 5 and swung again with the 1st angel( I had drawn 4 plains and 2 temple of the false gods)(2 colorless mana if you had 5 or more lands) Anyway It was 28-12 on turn 5. He did math for about 15 minutes and could only do 27 damage to me on his turn 5. I had Akroma able to come out on turn 6. I dropped Akroma on turn 6 and won. I played completely to win. I didn’t fear anything he would do. And I won. If I had played scared of his burn or “not to lose” then I would have been slaughtered with 27 points of damage on turn 5.

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