PV’s Playhouse – Tips and Tricks


As is often the case, I didn’t really have a clue what to write about. I thought about doing a prerelease report of sorts, but that didn’t look very interesting (one of my opponents was playing 60 cards; the other asked if he could mulligan to 7 since he had no lands; the other wanted to tap my guys in response to blocking and, when that failed, he wanted to tap my guys in response to me using activated abilities – etc. The fact that I had Skithiryx the Blight Dragon, Hoard-Smelter Dragon, and Kuldotha Phoenix probably helped, too). Besides, all my cards are in Portuguese, so it is probably not worth the trouble of me looking up the English names, which I haven‘t memorized yet. I also thought about writing on this set for Limited, but I didn’t think I had enough material for that just yet. So, I am left with another theory article, which are my favorite to write (and I think the most useful), but which are also, in my opinion, the most complicated ones (and the ones where you are most likely to just repeat yourself).

This is an article about nothing specific – it is basically things that I have thought to myself, general guidelines that I follow, and that I believe you should also. If you’ve followed my articles since I started writing, you can probably find mentions of most of those, but people keep messing them up, so I think it is useful to mention them again. At first they might seem completely unrelated, but that is because they, well, are.

Think in chunks, then act in chunks – do not alternate acting and thinking.

You should always think all you have to think, and then act accordingly to what you thought – you should NOT alternate between thinking and acting. This not only means you might lose your train of thought, but you also give them valuable information. Also, if you think and act and then think again and realize your previous thought was wrong, you cannot go back to it – you’ve already acted. For example:

When you or your opponent plays a card that requires you to choose multiple cards, choose all of them first, and then announce it to your opponent.

If they play Blightning, think of the two cards you are going to discard before you discard any card. Even if you already know what the first card is, do not discard it until you know what the second card is. The moment you to discard them, discard them together as a chunk. If your opponent has to look in your graveyard to see the first card you discarded, then you are doing it the optimal way. If you hastily discard one card, they will realize you don’t need it – it is an extra land, or a duplicate Legend, or a spare removal spell, etc. When you agonize over the second card, they will know it is important. Imagine that I play Blightning and you have four lands and four cards in hand. You immediately discard a land, and then, after some thought, discard another. At this point I know you very likely have a card that costs at least five in your hand.

If you play Brainstorm, think of the two cards you are putting back, and then the order, and then put both back. If you hastily put one back and then think on the other, he will know that you really don’t need one of the cards, but the other might be slightly important.

When you draw an opening hand, think about your first turn play as you are deciding to mulligan. This way, your opponent doesn’t know what you are thinking about, the mulligan or the play. You might also realize you don’t actually like your first sequence of plays, and then you can still mulligan the hand.

Say you are playing Doran in Extended, and you decide to keep your hand. Then you think for a while, play a sacland, sac it, search your deck, think for a while, and grab Murmuring Bosk. Then, you think for a while and play Treefolk Harbinger. Then you grab your deck, think for a while, and get a Doran, the Siege Tower. This shows your opponent that, for one, you have another land in your hand that is likely not the same one you just played (or you wouldn‘t have thought about it). Second, you likely have another turn one play. Third, getting the Doran is not obvious – you might have another Doran in your hand, or you might need a third land. The correct sequence is not to “think, keep, think, play land, think, play Harbinger, think, get Doran,” but “think, think, think, think, keep, play land, play Harbinger, get Doran.”

– Instants can be played in your opponent’s turn, but they don’t have to be. A lot of the time you should play instants on your turn, especially draw spells – I’ve seen many people pass with 7 lands and Jace’s Ingenuity only to draw a two-drop, or a land and a Cancel, and not be able to play it. You should also consider mainphasing instants when your opponent is tapped out and you think he might want to counter them – in a Mono-Red versus control match, for example, you should often just play your burn when you can sneak it, because they will be glad to trade their counterspells for some life in most situations. In the Faeries mirror it wasn’t uncommon for me to just mainphase Scion of Oona and even Mistbind Clique when they tapped out, for example.

It is also relevant to mainphase certain removal spells when you are playing against a limited deck that might have pump spells (green or white in general). If they play, say, a Juggernaut, you definitely want to Lightning Bolt it while they are tapped out so they don’t get to Giant Growth it in response to the Bolt. Even if they are not tapped out and you know you are Bolting the Juggernaut anyway, just do it on your turn – that way even if they Giant Growth it, it’s three less damage that you take because they had to play it on your turn.

– When in doubt, just play your lands, especially if you have card drawing in your deck. A lot of the time, people want to hold lands for bluffing purposes and then draw into draw spell plus a spell they can’t play, or something with an activated ability such as a shade or a Raging Ravine and then on the following turn a card that they can’t cast. I honestly think that it is more likely that you lose because you held a land than because you played one (though, of course, if you actually know there is nothing you can draw that will punish you for not playing a land, or if you think it is more important to protect something from Mind Rot, feel free to hold them).

– In Limited, only use removal when you absolutely have to. If you are in doubt, just don’t – many limited games are lost because scarce resources (in this case, removal) are not spent wisely. At the prerelease ,I watched a game in which one person had a Myr token, then played Arrest on his opponent’s Blackcleave Goblin so he could continue applying the beats. After attacking and putting his opponent to a dangerously low 15 life, his opponent untapped and played Geth, Lord of the Vault. Then he died. But at least he got his opponent to 15!

– Always give yourself the maximum amount of information before making a decision. I’ve written about this time and again, and I still see people doing it wrong in important tournaments. If you are going to play a Ponder, or use Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or draw a card in some way, do that before you make any other decisions for the turn, including playing a land – there is no reason not to and it is most of the time strictly better, since you might want to play another land instead (or not play a land at all).

Another relevant point is about fetching for something, either tutoring or just sacrificing a fetchland. Sometimes, when you are missing two cards, you should wait until you draw one, and then you can fetch the other. If you draw Vampiric Tutor and are missing both the Vampire Hexmage and the Dark Depths, then just wait to draw one, and then search for the other, so that you don’t risk drawing the one you already have. By the same token, if you lack both green and red mana, then you might not want to use your Terramorphic Expanse – if you do, you might fetch a Forest and then draw another. If you wait, you can see whether you are drawing a Forest or a Mountain, and then fetch the one you are missing, effectively doubling your odds of having both pieces at once.

At the same time, try to give your opponent the least amount of information you can. If you are going to do two things, and one of them gives your opponent a choice, make them choose first. For example, if you have Liliana’s Specter and Doom Blade in your hand, and you know you are going to play both, then play the Specter first – this way they have to discard without knowing you are going to kill their guys, and it might change the way they play. If they play a spell and you have a counter and a Fact or Fiction, play the Fact or Fiction first. They will split the cards differently if they don’t know you already have a Counterspell.

– Generally, in the early game before you attack, you want to play a land. This might seem like giving your opponent information (that card is not a spell in your hand), but most of the time it is not – when you have only two Forests and attack with Garruk’s Companion, you are giving your opponent the information that you are not going to play Diminish, Mighty Leap or Thunder Strike this turn. Basically, if you want them to block, you will want to attack without playing a land, so that they will only fear Giant Growth and will be more likely to block. If you don’t want them to block, you will want to play your Plains first – this way they will also worry about Safe Passage and Mighty Leap, and will be less likely to block.

– A lot of puzzles in Magic are more easily solvable if you put yourself in your opponent’s position and figure out what you would do if you were him, or what kind of card you would need to have (both in your deck and in your hand) to play in a certain way. For example:

You play a turn two creature – lets say a Runeclaw Bear that you fourth-picked over Mana Leak 😉 . Your opponent passes with UR up. You attack, and he plays Lightning Bolt before combat. Does he have a Mana Leak? Probably not. If you had a Mana Leak in hand, wouldn’t you wait to see if you want to counter your opponent’s three drop? I would – barring a very specific circumstances, the chance of countering a decent turn three play seems to be worth more than two damage to me (not to mention a better target for your Bolt showing up), and there is no reason to think it is not so for most opponents (incidentally, a scenario almost like this one happened in my second draft video).

In the same scenario from above, what else can we conclude from our opponent’s play, assuming he is a competent player? Put yourself on his shoes, and try to think about why you would kill the Runeclaw Bear. If you had a three drop that blocks him, would you? Definitely not, so your opponent very likely does not have a three drop that blocks Runeclaw Bear. Even if you had a four drop, you still likely wouldn’t kill it. If you were planning on racing your opponent, you would also probably leave the removal to kill a blocker or a more powerful attacker. So, when would you kill the Bear?

The answer is you would kill the Bear when your hand is either absurdly slow and his first play is going to be something like turn four Foresee or turn five Mind Control, or his hand is full of removal. In fact, if at any point your opponent Lightning Bolts your Bear, you can be reasonably sure he’s got more removal spells – he would definitely save his Bolt for a better target if that was the only one he had. So, by merely Bolting your Bear before combat, you can already put your opponent on a bunch of cards that he probably has, and a bunch of cards that he very likely doesn’t have, just by trying to figure out why you would have played that way if you were him (of course if your opponent is terrible, then this whole train of thought fails).

Also put yourself in your opponent’s position regarding the hands they kept. If they kept a hand that seems to be pretty terrible, then there is probably something to it, like a Day of Judgment or a bomb (again, assuming they are not awful themselves). In the Top 8 of GP Portland against Martin Juza, I kept a hand that was 5 land, Azure Drake and Mind Control. I drew lands for the first three turns, so my first play was the Drake. Then Martin played Conundrum Sphinx, and I stole it. After the match, he said he should have just held the Sphinx because he should have known that I had the Mind Control. His reasoning was (correctly) that I would not have kept such a slow and do-nothing hand unless it had a very powerful card, and a card that allows me to make up for the loss of tempo that I have by not playing anything early on. He knew that was true for me because he knew that is what he would think, and Mind Control was the card that would make him keep that hand and he knows we think very similarly regarding mulligans.

Blocks and no blocks can also tell you a lot about the contents of your opponent’s hand or deck. Does your opponent trade a lot? He probably has a powerful late game, like a bomb or a lot of card drawing. Does your opponent never trade? He probably has a way to get more value out of his creatures or something to tip the race in his favor, like [card]Sleep[/card], [card]Overwhelming Stampede[/card] or [card]Lava Axe[/card]. Is he blocking with his artifact creatures? He probably does not have a lot of metalcraft. Does he never block with his artifacts? They are probably very important to his strategy.

– Cards being better or worse is very relative. A lot of the time, a situation turns a bad card into something we have to deal with, and we might be reluctant to spend our better cards Sometimes we just have to [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] that Runeclaw Bear.

I remember watching a team draft match. one guy was playing UR super aggro, and the other was playing a white deck, also aggro. The UR deck had multiple Arc Runners and Lava Axes, and clearly just wanted to kill you as fast as possible. At some point the UR deck attacked with a bad creature – lets say a Goblin Piker – and the white player (who was on my team) refused to block with his Wild Griffin, because his guy was better. Then the UR deck played another bad guy. The white deck attacked and played Assault Griffin and again did not block, as I watched in dismay because of the “no interfere” rule that Americans seem to apply to their team drafts (which puzzles me, by the way, since it is team draft after all). Some turns later, the red guy played some tricks and burn spells and killed the white guy, as predicted. At the end of the game, the white guy still did not understand what he had done wrong, because, in his view, his guys were better and trading was unfavorable.

The main point is, trading was not unfavorable (or, even if it is, it is necessary anyway, as it is the lesser of two evils – when the other alternative is dying, ANYTHING else is the lesser evil). By blocking the Goblin Piker, you make every other card in their deck – especially Arc Runners and Lava Axes – a lot worse. If you are at five life, Lava Axe kills you. If you are at six, it doesn’t do anything. This is much worse! By trading with the early guys, you make sure many of his cards are no longer a threat to you, and he doesn’t have the opportunity to profitably use cards like Act of Treason and Unsummon, whereas if you just take the damage and try to race the deck that is clearly superior at that than yours, then those cards will become game-winners. In this match, it is not even relevant that the Griffins fly, since your opponent doesn’t want to block anyway, so they are actually not even that much “better.”

So, remember when I said those things were completely unrelated? Well, they are not thaaat unrelated. They are somewhat unrelated as strategy tips, but they all come down to two basic things – first, that Magic is a game of information, and everything you do sends information to your opponent, just like everything he does sends information to you. Second, that you always need reasons for playing the way you play – the worst thing you can do is “just play” the cards. Anyone can play the cards – you have to do better, you have to play the game, and for that you need to know the big picture behind all your moves.

Well, that’s pretty much what I’ve gotten for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and see you next week with another article and another draft video!


56 thoughts on “PV’s Playhouse – Tips and Tricks”

  1. Thanks for this! I always look forward to your articles. They’re a blast to read and are making me better at this game, 2 things I care about when I click on a mtg article 🙂 Keep writing!

  2. Good article. Players keep in mind that doing the opposite of what PV says can be beneficial at times as well. Holding 4 lands and get hit with Blightning? Drop that one land quick and agonize over the 2nd. Also playing lands in your 1st main phase, casting nothing, and then attacking seems to make some opponents think you are a bad player. I enjoy broadcasting that I am “noob,” am running a new deck, etc. You would be surprised at the arrogance of some people. Especially at FNM’s and lower-level tournaments. During a few matches, I’ve lost game one and portrayed myself as such a bad player that my opponent stops taking the game seriously. I ALWAYS appear to be in a hole whether I actually am or not. I get satisfaction from sighing my way through matches I’m dominating.

  3. Good points of advice. You know what would make this really awesome? If you could point out these situations as they come up in your draft videos. Like, when you see you opponent Bolt your Bears, pause for a moment and explain to everyone watching your thought process. Synergy is key. (Even synergy among Magic articles.)

  4. This article makes me feel really guilty for every time I’ve ever thought “Wow, that play seems suboptimal, I wonder what made him do it. Oh well, probably nothing important.”

  5. I think the fact that I go think, play, think, play, think, play… is what is holding me back from the next level of Magic. This was a tremendously helpful article (as usual). Keep up the good work, PV!

  6. Excellent article 🙂
    Also, did you get the mid-combat Assault Strobe at your prerelease as well? I personally misread that as a telegraphed Galvanic Blast. Is that bad on my part?

  7. This article is very good. I’m now thoroughly convinced that PV is good at the magics . This kind of conceptual stuff is good at revealing one’s own skill but anyone who isn’t already playing at this level probably isn’t going to walk away with much. Some of the tips are pretty literal and easy to apply such as the main-phase instants comment or playing a land before attacking to bluff additional combat tricks. But the important thing to see here is seemingly small procedures in magic can present a huge decision tree that is affected by a number of tangible and intangible factors. If you are capable of considering enough factors on the fly these trees can, to some degree, be decoded. Writers provide an example here and there. But really it just takes a lot of games of magic combined with intelligence/skill to develop that “sixth sense” that amazes the other kids at FNM when you play around a combat trick that the other guy ACTUALLY HAD IN HIS HAND or to know later that you lost that game when you didn’t mulligan (not on turn 15 when you drew a land and blamed luck). One thing I would say is that the thinking in chunks idea can be taken too far. As soon as I notice an opponent is watching me for tells too much, I’ll stare at the basic land I drew for 5 seconds, look at the board, count something unimportant like the power of their creatures, then pass with the card in hand. Now they are playing around a trick I don’t have. The trick is not to follow a particular set of rules, but to use a seemingly fast/thoughtless (I’ve got all I need already) or overly contemplative (I’m in trouble and need to draw outs) style of play to disguise what is really important to them in the game that is happening. Anyway I liked the article so I wrote this comment too long for anyone to read. Thanks.

  8. Aewsome article! I really like this kind of article i usually play just cards like you mention have to fix it thanks a lot!

  9. @ttille: i don’t know if i’m wrong, probably i am since i’m terrible in getting infos out of my opponent and terrible keeping mine secret, BUT, isn’t what you explained just the way of bluffing the pro poker players use to identify a fish?
    I’ll be glad to know at which level do you usually play: in a less competitive environment i’m sure that style does the job, not sold on a higher level.
    I want to make sure you don’t take it as a critic, i just try to get a piece of info that can be very useful to me.

  10. A lot of this is just proper mechanics that one should know. It’s rote learning, practice it, and always have it in your game.

    One of the best articles of the year. Read it, read it closely, this article will hugely improve your game.

  11. Regarding the Lightning Bolt vs Runeclaw Bear situation. It seems like a terrible play to bolt your bear when you attack. By not doing it in his own main phase, he’s opening himself up to get blown out by a Giant Growth or Mighty Leap.

    From this, we can reason that your opponent is a bad player. Do you still think it’s a reasonable assumption that he doesn’t have Mana Leak or a good 3-4-drop? While this reasoning might be valid against a solid player, against a bad player I don’t feel that your assumptions about his hand are necessarily true.

    On the other hand, if you are playing against an opponent that you know is solid or even very solid, you should know that something is up when he waits to bolt it. Obviously he’s fine with possibly taking 5 damage as long as he gets rid of that Giant Growth or gets confirmation that you don’t have one. If anything, this points in the direction that he wants to drop something like Conundrum Sphinx or Cyclops Gladiator on turn 4 and wants to make combat easy for them instead of having to play around giant Growth for the rest of the game.

  12. @Emtee: you are correct; The reason I wrote it like that was because I kind of got the example from something that happened in a video I was recording, and this is how it happened there, so I just put it like that (and I do talk about it in the video). Just pretend he bolted it main phase then, sorry about that :_)

  13. Now this is probably your best article ever, PV! As others asked, I’d be very pleased if you wrote more articles like this.

  14. -often I played Demigod post combat for huge success;

    -playing Lightning Bolt as a Lava Spike is also a constant, and not only when my opp is at 3;

    -I also wach out for the way my opp taps his mana. If he taps then untaps it, declining to play a spell, this gives you a big clue, since people normally taps the colored mana before the colorless (i.e. Mountain first for Vulshok Berserkers). If you sum this with the context (i.e. pre-combat phase for Vulshok Berserkers) you even have a better clue about his misterious card. Just saying.

  15. i like theoretical articles the most, as i feel i learn a lot of them.identifying and afterwards reducing some problem or thought to the core while making it understandable via a suitable reference isnt that easy. your theory articles are great and even thought i enjoy reading most of your stuff, i believe you are best when you try to give some theoretical insight.

  16. Thanks a ton PV. This is the most concise and relevant collection of play tips I’ve read so far. So many of the “don’ts” in your article are things I do all the time 🙁 I plan on reading this article many times over and I have no doubt my play will improve as a result. I think I’m gonna have ” Play the game, not just the cards! “, tattooed backwards on my forehead so I can read it every time I look in the mirror. 🙂

  17. This reminds me of what Chapin said about more games of magic being decided by tight technical play than all other bluffs etc combined.

    This is an article where you actually go into details about correct and precise technical play, with examples and reasoning. This is some of the scarcest material to be found in magic articles, yet it is often the most important stuff to know if you want to improve.

    Writing more articles about correct technical play like you did here will probably help people more than almost any other type of writing.

    Obviously you’ve covered some of the most important things here, but I am sure you can think of some more obscure points in a part 2.

  18. Maybe PV is writing these “great” articles because he’s tired of getting a great read on an above average player then getting blown out because of their bad plays!

    Sometimes you have a turn 4, 4/3 flyer that you wouldn’t want to block a bear with, but you want to mana leak their turn 4 play before you drop that 4/3.

    So you bolt their bear on their turn, if they have the growth etc, then you take an extra 6-7 damage, but they skip their 3 drop, you leak their best 4cc spell (because they cast it due to them thinking you not having the leak) and then block their bear with your 4/3 (what’s the chance that he has 2 combat tricks for that damn bear).

    If they don’t have a growth, they still lose the bear, you still get their best 4cc spell and save on 6-7 damage.

  19. The biggest “chunk” thing I’ve seen that is just absolutely god-awful was when people played with Gifts Ungiven. I saw way too many people search out two/three cards from their deck and plop them on the table, only to search for the remaining one/two cards after a minute and then give it to their opponent. Things like that infuriate me so much!

    Also, Mr. Math: You’re failing to realize that in the last scenario you made, they don’t skip their 3-drop if the bear dies, so you lose your chance to counter it there. Or what if they have another two-drop alongside the Growth?

  20. Also, I agree with you on the team draft thing. You guys are on a team for a reason. Otherwise it’s just you playing 3 matches (if it’s a 3v3) and hoping that your teammates do well, too, which doesn’t even constitute a team. The only part where you guys are a team is deckbuilding, and that’s not even that bad. You should definitely be allowed to talk amongst yourselves as if you guys were huddling around MODO, considering what the best line of play is and whatnot. I really dislike the idea of silence for something like that.

  21. @efrem: What I meant was that you can use your pace of play to send a signal that certain things are important when they really aren’t, and that this can be effective at times compared to keeping to a set rule about how you play. But it always depends on factors such as the game state, whether or not you think you need help, how you perceive opponent’s skill, how you think they perceive yours, etc. Which is why some pros in poker and magic just put on sunglasses and frown 100% of the time when they play to eliminate having to worry about some of these things. As for your question I’ve been playing since Ice Age, serious since Darksteel, and decent (in my opinion) since Ravnica. I’ve broken 1900 in limited and constructed on modo before I quit after my account got stolen but don’t have pro points or anything. I don’t live in a very active magic area and I work while going to school so PTQs and GPs are hard to make unless they’re within a few hours which is rare.

  22. Useful article. Useful stuff.

    The site seems to have been lacking advice on actual gameplay situations and been filling up on general tournament reports. More insight into the thinking behind specific situations in a game would probably help a lot of players.

    This article seems to have delivered that.

  23. Pingback: links for 2010-09-30 « Blarney Fellow

  24. This was a fantastic article. Even as someone for whom most of this advice is familiar, reading it in writing and phrased by a different mind will make me even more aware in my own play. I’m glad you like to write theory articles and encourage you to continue with them. I much prefer this to “Draft Walkthrough #942”. Magic writers seem to have largely given up on theory, at least as compared to the early days of Magic writing.

  25. nice article again, your articles are really making me a better player
    i was here wondering if u are going to play on braizilian legacy national
    i mean u have your place by the ranking
    if u are going i really hope to meet u there
    thanks for the articles

  26. Melbourne_junkie

    What the hell is this ‘no interfere’ rule … ? How is it even a ‘team draft’ … ? Seems dumb.

  27. bolting the bear in the first main phase does nothing.

    If he has the growth spell you still get the same result as if it was the combat phase.

    a bigger bear that lives and does 4-5 damage.

    So the only better option is to take 2 damage, and bolt it after combat has been resolved.

    But it’s not clear that is actually a better option.

    How big is the chance he has this giant growth spell and uses it? Let’s call it P

    What is better? during or before combat P * 5 damage

    or after combat 100% = 2 damage

    if P< 0,4 (40%) it's better to bolt before or during combat

  28. I think this is one of the best strategy articles I ever read, thanks PV! Some of the tips are things I already do in my playing, others are new to me & very good ideas, well explained and presented. I particularly like the “do all your thinking, then do all your plays” and the examples showing how beneficial it can be. I’ll try and make sure I follow that principle from now on!

  29. Waaah waah wee wah! Deep game strategy indeed.

    Sometimes i find it best to wait until they giant growth, and then, in response, lightning bolt!
    This requires even deeper game strategy in telegraphing body language that says you don’t have the removal even though ya do. You can do this by drawing your card rapidly as if, expecting it to be something specific you “need” then visibly wincing or slumping or even just sitting back so as to look dejected or sad that it wasn’t what you wanted regardless of what it was and whats already in your hand..

    I did this this week at a release event in response to a Tainted Strike played on a Neurok Invisimancer with Galvanic Blast. It was late enough in the game that if I had not, i would have died to Contagion Engine (What a Beast!) that turn. Instead i was able to alpha strike the next turn FTW.

    I liek this type of article and hope to see more like it.

    Muito bem!

  30. Hey PV,

    Very handy and insightful article!
    At first i was turned off by the wall of text, but coming back and taking the time to read the article proper, it really has some well thought out and interesting pointers.
    Having real life scenarios is also a nice way to engage the reader and get the points across.
    All the best,

  31. pow PV vem q vc poderia traduzir pra portugues e colocar na Liga ou então no forum do Edel.

    faça isso por nois os brasileiros!

    um abraço!

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