Solving the Very First Decision of the Game: Part 2

If you have missed part 1 of this masterpiece, I highly recommend you catch up on it.

Let’s start again with a warm-up exercise:

You are playing a mirror match, and your deck consists of 60 Simian Spirit Guide/Lava Spike split cards. Should you be on the play or on the draw, and why?

Post your takes on it in the comments section. I’ll post my solution there as well.

The Actual Merits of Play vs. Draw

“Well, why do I have to do this stupid warm-up anyway?” you might ask. Because I think it highlights the merits of playing versus drawing quite nicely. In the abstract, this is tempo versus extra resources. If you go first, you are a turn faster. If you go second, you play each of your turns with an additional card. So what’s actually better?


There are 3 main categories of cards that benefit from going first. Also, consider that even if you don’t run any of these kinds of cards, it can be important to deny your opponent (who might run them) the advantage of doing so.

Snowball cards: These are permanents that generate incremental advantage while they’re in play—most of them will be able to win games on their own if unchecked. Planeswalkers are typical snowball cards, but there are other examples like Dark Confidant, Winding Constrictor, Monastery Mentor, Pack Rat, or Shadowmage Infiltrator. Because of their rarity or synergy requirements, you will see them in Constructed more often than in Limited, but there are also weaker snowball cards such as Fretwork Colony, Longtusk Cub, Oketra’s Monument or the Hondens from Kamigawa at uncommon.

Aggressive cards or mechanics: If your plan is to beat down your opponent as fast as possible, playing first is usually key to winning races against other fast decks or finishing off slower decks before they play their powerful cards. There are plenty of aggressive mechanics in Magic such as exert, renown, and afflict, which incentivize you to attack and therefore to play first.

Combos: Combo decks usually play out like goldfish games. You don’t care much about what your opponent is doing—you’re looking to deploy your combo pieces as soon as possible. Since you have to accomplish this before dying, you’d better get going as early as possible. If you play some sort of mirror match, the player starting the game has a huge advantage. Recently, Felidar Guardian and Aetherworks Marvel got banned, and I think this advantage for the starting player might have been one of the considerations as to why they were banned.


There are several resources in Magic, but cards and life are surely the most relevant.

Having an extra card at the start of your game does the following:

  • Gives you an insurance against mulligans
  • Protects you against non-targeted discard spells
  • Gives you more options during each of your turns
  • Fixes your mana and decreases your chance on mana screw

This sounds like a lot, but if good old Frank would come up with the exact percentages, it would look less appealing. Still, if you and your opponent don’t care much about tempo, you should gladly take the resource advantage.

To come up with the right decision, you have to evaluate the matchup and your role in it.

To simplify it, I could say that in faster matchups, you always want to be on the play and in slower matchups you always want to be on the draw. But that’s not entirely correct. If your aggro matchup is all about trading resources, it can be correct to go second. And if you’re playing a control matchup and your opponent has the much better late game, you should really try hard to finish the game as soon as possible, and therefore start the game on the play and adapt to that game plan. But then, in a grindy matchup, an extra card can be worth a lot.

Find your role in slower matchups. If you want to go under or go bigger, put yourself on the play. If you want to grind, be on the draw.

As a rule of thumb, I think that extra resources matter most in matchups where your solutions are cheaper and more numerous than their threats. For example, if you play against a Draft deck with 10 Longtusk Cubs in it but you have 10 Fatal Pushs, you should draw first (unless the rest of your deck actively wants you to be on the play). If you have 10 Never // Return instead, you should play (and probably do so against an Amonkhet drafter, I know).

A Journey to Hearthstone

Blizzard is famous for making balanced games. Since Hearthstone is so similar to Magic, it’s interesting to see how they balance the play/draw topic.

In Hearthstone, starting player A starts with 3 cards, while player B has 4 cards and a coin (almost equivalent to a Lotus Petal). So does that mean that in order to balance Magic, the player on the draw should get a Lotus Petal?

No, it doesn’t. In Hearthstone, you get a “free land” each turn. So translated to Magic, you draw 2 cards each turn, a land and a spell. This, as well as the fact that hero powers exist as mana sinks, reduces the value of the extra card Player B gets. Let me illustrate my point:


Turn 1: Player A – 4 cards + 1 land (→ 5 cards)
Turn 1: Player B – 5 cards + 1 land (→ 6 cards)
Turn 2: Player A – 5 cards + 2 land (→ 7 cards)
Turn 2: Player B – 6 cards + 2 land (→ 8 cards)
Turn 3: Player A – 6 cards + 3 land (→ 9 cards)
Turn 3: Player B – 7 cards + 3 land (→ 10 cards)

So the active player in Hearthstone is always the player with the most resources. But player A has the advantage of going first, and the coin tries to compensate for that.


Turn 1: Player A – 7 cards
Turn 1: Player B – 8 cards
Turn 2: Player A – 8 cards
Turn 2: Player A – 9 cards

As you see, Player A never has more resources than Player B. Player B gets a free Divination at the start of the game instead of something like the coin to compensate for the fact that A has the first turn.

From Theory to Practice


Back in the days I started Magic, it was common sense to draw first in Sealed. Removal was much better than creatures in general, and therefore, Sealed was very slow. That also led to more players splashing colors. Nowadays, creatures are better and Sealed is faster, especially if creatures are hard to block. Still, I think even today you can draw first in most Sealed formats unless the format is bomb-heavy and your deck doesn’t have lots of removal, or if there are lots of aggressive keywords around that make blocking hard (renown, afflict, exert). In Amonkhet/Hour of Devastation, I usually draw first when I am black and have ways to deal with fast starts, and go first if I had exert creatures, especially red and white ones.


You should usually play in game 1 first unless your deck is packed with removal. For game 2, it depends on your matchup. I tend to draw first in midrange and control matchups if I’m not aggressive. If they play against bombs I cannot beat, I play first and try to kill them before they play their trump.


Again, don’t put yourself on the draw if you don’t know the matchup. Since the printing of planeswalkers, it’s pretty rare that you should draw first, even in slower matchups.

There were actually times in Standard when you should draw first. Back in the days when Jund, the grindfather of all midrange decks, was very dominant, the deck adapted for the mirror match and maindecked Celestial Purges instead of Putrid Leeches. Since Blightning was devastating for the player on the play and it was often incorrect to play a Bloodbraid Elf on an empty board, it was actually better to draw first. This was also the time when Knight of the White Orchid was very good–I played a Midrange Knightfall version where it was also correct to draw first against Jund.

In the current Standard, I think it’s correct to draw first in a U/R mirror match—maybe even in all of the Torrential Gearhulk matchups. Finding your land drops is the key to victory in these matchup, and the threats are so much more expensive than the answers to them. If U/W starts to run multiple Gideon Juniors, you should not draw with U/R since you don’t have a ton of answers to Gideon, but as long as these decks stay the same, drawing first in blue mirrors seems good to me. When drawing first, or unloading your card draw engines, pay attention to the fact that you can deck yourself. Without having played them a ton, I think that Ipnu Rivulet, paired with 1 or 2 Desert of the Mindful, could be promising tech in these matchups.

Some months ago, when Vehicles was the deck to beat and B/G Constrictor the perfect tech to beat it, B/G ran 4 Fatal Pushes and 4 Grasp of Darkness. In a B/G mirror these days, I also wanted to draw first.

Older Formats

Modern was called a turn-4 format, meaning that games are often decided as soon as turn 4. Vintage and Legacy tend to be even faster. You really don’t want to be on the receiving end of a turn-4 kill, so your best chance of disrupting them or being faster is simply to win the roll and play first. There are exceptions of course, for example, the Manaless Dredge deck that always wants to be on the draw (and against which you should put yourself on the draw if you have the decision). I also think that there might be some blue control (like Jeskai Control in Modern) or black grind (like some planeswalker-light Modern Pox) mirrors where it could be correct to draw first.


In my last article, I mentioned compensate as a possible mechanic to balance play/draw in the current Limited and Standard. Here are a few examples for a rare cycle I came up with that could be interesting for Standard:

Legendary Zombie
When * comes into play, draw a card and lose 1 life.
Compensate: draw two cards and lose 2 life instead.

Legendary Human
When * comes into play, create a 1/1 soldier token with vigilance.
Compensate: Create two tokens instead.

Legendary Elf
Tap: Add G to your mana pool.
Compensate: Add GG instead.

Legendary Goblin
Whenever damage is dealt to *, * deals that much damage to it’s controller.
Compensate: Comes into play with a +1/+1 counter

Legendary Merfolk
When * comes into play, tap target creature. It doesn’t untap during next untap step.
Compensate: Bounce the creature instead.

Think Outside of the Box

To end my article, I also want to show you two examples where thinking outside of the box can bring you to the conclusion to draw first:

Discard outlet: I really enjoy playing Cube, and Reanimator is one of my favorite archetypes. Sometimes I struggle to find decent discard outlets to go along with my fatties and reanimation spells. The simple solution: Drawing first and discarding on your first discard step by not playing a land. It feels like playing Manaless Dredge–just dodge bad hands you’d have to mulligan or Thoughtseizes from your opponent.

Lost: I played against a friend in a Dark Ascension/Innistrad Draft FNM and knew he was playing the Lost in the Woods deck (1 Lost in the Woods + 42 Forests). I was playing G/W and had no way to deal with Lost in the Woods once in play. I won the die roll and chose to draw first. When he kept his hand, I simply mulliganed to 0 and won the game by decking him.


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