Racing in Kaladesh

Kaladesh is a world of invention and innovation, but it also is home to something tried and true: a good old race. No, I’m not talking about Vehicles racing around the track here, though those certainly pull their weight in Kaladesh. I’m talking about those classic games of Magic where you’re attacking your opponent, they’re attacking you, and you hope they die first. It’s a classic song and dance, but one that isn’t talked about all that much because it varies so much from one situation to another.

When you have 4 specific cards in hand on a complicated board you might play one way, but if you just change a card or two among any of those, then all of a sudden the situation has changed and you’ll want to play differently. I clearly can’t describe every iteration of plays you can make in a game of Magic, but I can summarize the thought processes I use while playing Kaladesh Limited to help inform my attacks and blocks.

Let’s get to some actionable advice. Knowing how best to attack and block on key turns is complicated and that makes this set especially tough thanks to how many races actually occur. Of course, there are also games where both players are doing all sorts of wacky, crazy combos, but I’ll talk about that another time. Today is about turn-3 Renegade Freighter and the red zone. It’s about dwindling life totals, timely pump spells, and the narrowest of victories.

The Train is Leaving the Station

Renegade Freighter single-handedly initiates a race. It comes down on turn 3 and starts attacking. 5-point life chunks just start flying around, and that can be scary to face down. When you have two creatures and you can finally double-block the train, you’ll feel strongly compelled to do it, because you’re simply losing the race at hand.

But I almost guarantee you that you’ll lose the game on the spot if you double-block at the first opportunity. Any pump spell or removal spell will keep the train rolling past you, and now it’s lights out. You’ll have no time to rebuild or have a chance to block again. So think smarter. You need to develop more before dealing with it. Embrace the race. Take some more damage. You might have to go down to 10 life but at least you’ll have 3 creatures and actually be able to triple-block if need be and won’t lose the game immediately after blocking. You could also have 2 creatures and a combat trick of your own up your sleeve to match your opponent’s.

By choosing to race for a few turns you actually buy yourself some time to deal with giant threats. It’s counter-intuitive, but in fast formats, blocking can be the easiest way to lose even when you’re losing the race. Instead, block at the exact right moment, then turn the corner. Then you can take advantage of the fact that you’ve already dealt some substantial damage to your opponent earlier on because you decided to trade hits. You might be at 5 when you try to turn the corner and your opponent is at 11, but just because you were disadvantaged by racing doesn’t mean you can’t turn it around. You might just be a couple of attacks away from actually winning a game you were going to lose otherwise.

To take this point further, Vehicles discourage blocking altogether. The best option is to deal with the train (or boat, or car, etc.) in a different way all while continuing to race. Keep developing your board and hitting back, and perhaps you can set up a removal spell on a key turn to simply win the race, or hold back the exact right blockers for a turn or two to chump a non-trampling Vehicle, which will let you win by exact damage.

The problem with trading on defense versus Vehicles is that they’re just so large for their cost that they will always 2-for-1 you at a minimum. Sometimes you’ll have to bite the bullet and just hope a trade works out for you, but I’ve found that it will work far less often than it succeeds. Again, the cheap combat tricks of the format combine very well with gigantic creatures.

One final note about blocking is that Vehicles actually stop Vehicles pretty well. Sometimes you’ll be behind in a race, but you can simply block your Renegade Freighter on your opponent’s. A trick or removal spell there still hurts, but at least you aren’t getting 2-for-1’d. Ultimately, you want to decide if you can race effectively, or if you have to block and then what sequencing gives you the best options to turn the race around in your favor.

“I’ll Just Make Them Have It”

How often have you heard or said those words when discussing your opponent’s pump spells? How often have you considered the contextual format for the pump spells alongside the spells themselves? You can’t consider one without the other, yet it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just making your opponent have it without considering the ramifications of snap-blocking.

The classic reasoning is that if you don’t block now, that pump spell will be great later on anyway, and that’s the part you need to consider. Can you make the pump spell worse? If you think all your creatures are bigger at each point on the curve, I’m a big fan of just trading for the pump spell as soon as possible. You’ll then have the biggest creatures around and your opponent won’t have any way to trade up.

You should almost always block in the first few turns because your opponent might have to spend their entire turn casting a pump spell and miss developing their board. But don’t forget the context that almost every pump spell is cheap in Kaladesh. Green has two 1-mana tricks, and both white and red have 1-mana tricks as well. If you make your opponent have it on turn 4, they’ll probably cast a pump spell and then follow up with another 3-drop. You’re behind on the board because of the trick and further behind again. Like the situation I described with Vehicles, there are times to wait on blocking and where you should just trade damage. When pump spells are cheaper, you don’t always want to make your opponent have it, because you’ll lose important board position while your opponent advances theirs.

What should you do then in those midgame turns where both you and your opponent have a good creature in play? First, you should determine if you even need to trade off your creatures at all. It might be that you can simply race and be ahead. If you don’t allow for good trades with a pump spell, you effectively downgrade it from a Terminate to a Lava Spike or worse, which is fantastic as long as you are careful not to die to the Lava Spike you’re trying to play around. The other option is setting up blocks in

The other option is to set up blocks in a way that your opponent will have to trade their pump spell and creature for two or possibly only one of yours. Imagine your opponent has 2 Prakhata Pillar-Bugs in R/B and you have 2 Aviary Mechanics. If you double-block a 2/3 with your 2/2s right away and your opponent casts Built to Smash, you’ll lose both your 2/2s. If you wait a turn and cast another creature, even another measly 2/2, you can now triple-block and your opponent can trade their 2/3 for a 2/2, or their 2/3 and pump spell for 2 of your 2/2s. Either way, you’re happy and you’ve used your life total as an effective resource.

Specific creatures help dictate when you should aim to trade or race. Fairgrounds Trumpeter is a card that gets better and better the longer it’s in play. If you think you can get away with trading for it, you should try to do so since it’s pretty bad before it gets boosted up, but then it will grow out of control and can be incredibly hard to stop.

The problem is that your opponent also knows that, and so they won’t usually offer up a horrible trade for no reason. Imagine you try to trade off for the Trumpeter in combat and they cast Subtle Strike. Not only do they win the combat but now, the Trumpeter will have 2 +1/+1 counters forever. In this scenario it would have been better to just take the 2 damage and attack back. Only trade when you can truly afford to, since one combat blowout in this format can easily spell defeat.

Maintaining Aggression

I’ve discussed a lot of tough situations so far where you’re behind and struggling to find the right line to get back in the game. But sometimes you’ll be in the driver’s seat and want to keep applying pressure as long as possible without offering optimal blocks and counterplay to your opponent.

Early on, that means doing the exact opposite of what we’ve been talking about. Often it’s right to hold your pump spell early because it might mean your 4/4 taking down a 4/5 a few turns later. That scenario also still lets you commit another creature to the board rather than forcing your pump spell to take up a significant amount of mana in your turn. 1 mana on turn 3 is a large cost, but on turn 5 or 6 it is much smaller proportionally.

Timing removal spells can also be tricky. One of the easiest things you can do is hold your removal spell until it can deal the most damage. Clearing a blocker later rather than earlier simply lets more creatures attack. There’s an important balance of continuing to apply pressure, evaluating whether there will be a better target later, and whether you need to use your removal spell to prevent an attacker from dealing you damage.

If you cast a Welding Sparks on turn 3 to take down a 2/3 and attack with a 2/2, you’re making progress, but not very much. You’ll deal 2 damage, but your opponent will just play another bigger creature that you won’t be able to stop because you used your Welding Sparks. Instead, if you had just cast a simple creature, even a 3/2, you can attack the following turn. Your opponent will then get the option to trade but you can deploy a bigger threat, and if they stumble you always have the option to clear the path and attack for 5. Note that if you had used your removal spell the previous turn, you’d only have attacked for 4 thus far. Waiting here gives you more options and the potential for more damage.

You might worry that your 2/2 isn’t being very effective because it’s blanked by a 2/3, but it can still double-block later, or attack on a key turn where you go wide or simply remove a key blocker and get in for the last 2 points. A creature’s effectiveness isn’t measured only by good immediate attacks and blocks, but also the potential to attack and block later on in more coordinated turns where removal and bounce spells can change the board.

There are additional benefits to holding Aura-based removal spells such as Malfunction or Revoke Privileges beyond finding better targets and setting up bigger attacks later on. Holding on to them longer lets you play around good but specific answers to them like Aether Tradewinds or Aviary Mechanic. If you are patient, your opponent might use these spells before you even commit your Aura to the board, which drastically improves their effectiveness.

I know I covered a lot of information today, and many tricky situations. Each situation that demands racing will be different than the last, but it’s important to evaluate if you can trade damage for a while or are forced to trade off earlier than you would want to. The longer you wait to trade when you’re racing brings up more options for blocking in the later turns, and there will be times where you can find ways to actually win the race even though you thought you were initially losing it. Planning your pump spells and removal spells, as well as thinking through the key turns where you’ll need to block with multiple creatures or chump-block to win a race, are some of the most important things to practice. Ultimately, with everything in racing situations, timing is everything.

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