Inspired by Eric Levine’s “Punts to Puzzles”, I wanted to share a few puzzling scenarios from games that might just help you make fewer punts in the future. My hope is that you will not just read through these examples, but to think through them on your own. How would you have played in these scenarios? How would you have arrived at your decisions? Would you have thoroughly analyzed these situations in a game? Or would you have instead been guided by shortcuts, and would your shortcuts have been correct? Think not only of the specific scenarios here, but also your decision-making process.
In a pre-Conflux Shards sealed event you have a board of Cavern Thoctar, Court Archers, Bloodpyre Elemental, and eight lands (capable of domain mana, with two Red sources). You are at 20 life to your opponent’s 11, and he has only lands in play. He has been stuck on two Plains and a Mountain, but he just untapped with a Jungle Shrine and played a freshly drawn Forest. He casts Wooly Thoctar with his basics and passes the turn.
You should immediately recognize that your opponent is representing a pump spell. Your opponent just got access to green mana and has a full hand; he clearly had several possible plays on his last turn. How is it that the best he can come up with is a Woolly Thoctar, given your board? The play just doesn’t make any sense unless he is holding pump. It is possible he deliberately chose to bluff a pump spell, but I think you can be pretty confident that he actually has it here.
On your turn after drawing you have double Resounding Silence in hand. There are three possible ways to play this turn. The first is the obvious play of sacrificing Bloodpyre, but if you operate under the assumption that your opponent is holding pump, this play is poor. You trade Bloodpyre for their pump spell, and are then unable to attack. You can do better. If you attack with just the Cavern Thoctar, you get no damage through, but trade your Thoctar for his and his pump spell. Trading Cavern Thoctar for Wooly Thoctar and pump is preferable to trading Bloodpyre for just pump here. Think about what your opponent is likely to have next turn – he should at least manage another fatty, or two cheaper spells. Your Thoctar next turn thus would not be getting better value than it could get this turn, as best case it would be trading with their Thoctar and some other small creature or another pump spell, and if they have a five toughness guy you can’t even get two cards out of your Thoctar. It is pretty clear that the second option is the better play if they have pump. If they somehow don’t have a pump spell, the plays are equivalent: either way, your Thoctar gets to bash through for damage (or Woolly Thoctar chump blocks it, which is even better for you). If you go with the second option and your Thoctar goes unblocked, then you know your opponent does not have pump and can safely sacrifice Bloodpyre. Attacking with Thoctar is, for all intents and purposes, strictly better than immediately sacrificing Bloodpyre.
The final way to play this turn, and the play I made at GP: Kansas City, is to attack with all three creatures. My opponent obviously blocked my Thoctar, and I pumped the Thoctar twice to turn off his pump spell. Compared to the second option, this play gets in five damage at the expense of letting my opponent keep the pump spell. Generally the pump spell is worth more than five life, but this play left my opponent at a very convenient 6 life with two Resounding Thunders in my deck. That on its own doesn’t make this play correct, but consider what is likely to happen in the game from here. As you are not adding more pressure, your opponent is going to have little trouble stabilizing against Court Archers and Bloodpyre, with or without still having the pump spell. Your double Silence, not to mention your creatures, makes you fairly impenetrable on defense, especially since your opponent needs to attack cautiously from such a low life total. His pump spell is pretty worthless on offense in the face of your Silences. The board is almost certainly going to stall out, and the game is going to go long. Gaining the inevitability of having two cards that straight up win the game in your deck is thus incredibly valuable, much more valuable than your opponent’s pump spell. Your opponent is going to have a very difficult time killing you before you draw a Thunder. Note that this play is much much worse than sending just Thoctar if your opponent does not actually have the pump spell. You need to be extremely convinced they have it to make this play.
You are playing WB Tokens against 5cc, with you at 20 life and your opponent at 14. Your board is Tidehollow Sculler taking a Volcanic Fallout, Knight of Meadowgrain, and four lands. Your opponent evoked a Mulldrifter last turn and passed with three Reflecting Pools open and three cards in hand: a second Mulldrifter you know about from Sculler, and the two cards just drawn off of the first Mulldrifter. After drawing this turn, your hand is Knight of Meadowgrain, Kitchen Finks, Glorious Anthem, and Ajani Goldmane.
This is a pretty complicated situation, as there is so much for you to be concerned about your opponent having. Broken Ambitions, Volcanic Fallout, Plumeveil, and Esper Charm are all about equally likely, and they each demand careful play.
Playing around Esper Charm is the simplest; you just need to continue to add pressure this turn. Playing nothing this turn is not an option, even ignoring Esper Charm, as you need to do everything you can to kill your opponent here before Broodmates and Ultimatums start pouring down on you. If you play Glorious Anthem this turn, Esper Charm would likely be used to draw two rather than destroy it, so that should not really be a factor.
You are not likely beating a Plumeveil this game unless Ajani sticks. If Ajani and pump both resolve, you could consider not attacking until your creatures have at least four power, but even then the reward of getting six damage in is probably worth the risk of them having the Plumeveil. Your best bet is likely to play as if your opponent does not have Plumeveil.
Playing a creature this turn seems wrong. It leaves you unnecessarily open to Fallout, and you can easily fight through Fallout this game. Sure, if your opponent has the Fallout this turn you lose your two creatures in play and he gets the Scullered Fallout back, but your Anthem effects can protect you from the second Fallout. An Anthem effect adds a similar level of pressure without this vulnerability.
So is it best to play Ajani or Anthem this turn? Ajani is the most efficient use of your mana, and maximizes both damage dealt and your ability to double up on spells in future turns. Ignoring what your opponent could have, Ajani is the play. If your opponent has Broken Ambitions, though, you would prefer to bait with Anthem and resolve the more powerful Ajani. Note that this is counterintuitive to how you would normally want to play against countermagic, as against a hand stocked full of counters it would probably be right to play Ajani into one this turn so that you can try to slip spells through later on casting two a turn. But you are not facing a hand full of countermagic, and Anthem makes a good bait spell for a potential Ambitions.
If your opponent doesn’t have Ambitions, that means you would rather resolve Ajani, right? Well, not necessarily. Anthem is better than Ajani this turn if they have Fallout, and them not having Ambitions increases the chances of them having Fallout. What actually happened in this game was that Tokens went for Ajani, which resolved, but 5cc had a Fallout in response to the pump. This was a disaster for Tokens, as with the Fallout returned from Sculler, the following turn Tokens had to lead with Anthem for protection, and then Knight. Had Anthem been played first instead of Ajani, then the next turn Tokens could have run out both Knight and Finks. Having to wait a turn on Finks caused Tokens to miss five damage, and that five damage ended up being the difference between 5cc dying the turn it cast Cruel Ultimatum, and being able to untap after the Cruel and win easily from there. Anthem is the better play if 5cc has either Ambitions or Fallout, and thus should have been played over Ajani.
Your Faeries opponent has just untapped with Bitterblossom, one token, Mistbind Clique, Sower stealing a Finks, and Cryptic Command in hand (made pretty transparent to you), dropping to five from Bitterblossom and adding a second token. You are playing GB Elves and have Llanowar Elves, Noble Hierarch, and double Treetop Village in play, with two Forests in hand. Last turn when your opponent played Sower you didn’t play a spell and simply attacked with manlands, so your opponent knows you have no relevant spells in hand. You are at 15 life, and your opponent sends the team. You chump Finks with Llanowar Elves, taking seven and facing lethal in the air next turn. You draw a Wilt-Leaf Liege on your turn; if your opponent plays correctly, it is impossible for you to win this game.
And yet, Alex Alepin won this game in a GPT finals. His opponent tried to play around Alex drawing anything in that last turn, including a Cloudthresher, and so Alex played like he did in fact draw Cloudthresher. He activated one Treetop and moved to combat. Alex had seven total lands in play plus the Noble Hierarch, so had he attacked with both Treetops, he would not have been representing Cloudthresher. His opponent could then simply allow attacks, bounce one Treetop, and take the hit from the other down to two life. Alex’s one Treetop attacked, and thanks to Noble Hierarch, his opponent could not just take the hit. His opponent, trying (futiley) to beat a Cloudthresher, opted not to use the Cryptic on the Village, and instead blocked with the untapped Bitterblossom token to soak up a damage. Critically, this left his opponent without lethal the next turn and at two life with a Bitterblossom in play. Barring a topdeck, the opponent was going to be forced to bounce Bitterblossom with the Cryptic. Post-combat Alex could not play his Liege, or the Cryptic would enable Finks to get in for the final damage, so he passed the turn.
Faeries drew a blank and sent in Mistbind and Sower, leaving four toughness back on defense. Alex also drew a blank, leaving him once again cold to correct play. He cast Liege and his opponent would win if he realized that he had to counter the Liege and bounce Bitterblossom. Alex would have been one mana short of sending both Villages, and one damage short if he sent just one Village. His opponent allowed the Liege, giving Alex the one damage he needed with a lone Treetop. He activated one and moved to combat. His opponent had to tap Alex’s creatures and bounce Bitterblossom with the Cryptic. Alex tapped the active Treetop for green in response, giving him the one extra mana he needed to activate the second Village and get in for exactsies.