Updating Force of Will Heuristics for the Modern Age

When I wrote my article on Brainstorm heuristics a few weeks ago, I didn’t intend that to have a single-card focus. There are a lot of cards in Legacy right now that have long pedigrees in the format and I wanted to touch base on a couple of them at once. By the time I was halfway through that article though, I realized that spreading out the focus might hurt the message and come across as too overwhelming (at least, it was overwhelming to try to write it that way!).


Force of Will (Borderless)


This week, I want to continue the conversation surrounding heuristics and place my focus on a different staple of the Legacy format: Force of Will. Along with Brainstorm, Force of Will is one of the most defining cards of the format and has seen extensive play since the beginning. It’s widely hailed as the glue of Legacy that prevents the format from devolving into a broken, combo-oriented mess. Seeing as it’s a pivotal card in the format, Force of Will is perfectly positioned to be re-evaluated and discussed in the context of modern-day Legacy.


Header - Heuristics

It would be remiss of me to not start with a definition of heuristics. To quote my Brainstorm article:

“Heuristics (which are mental shortcuts that help us reach sufficient outcomes in our thought processes) are an important tool in Magic. They greatly ease the decision making process and help ensure people don’t have to exert the maximum amount of effort on every choice in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion.”

As I discussed in that article, being able and willing to update previously held notions is crucial for growth as a player. Being an eternal format, players tend to form their heuristics in this format early on in their format exposure. This is especially true when consuming content, made by format experts, with the goal of improving your play skill and knowledge. This is a great thing to do, but occasionally the format changes fundamentally and relying on prior knowledge might be more harmful than you think.


There’s one particular notion that I see players defaulting to that might be having an adverse effect on their win percentage, and it comes up primarily when dealing with sideboarding:


Heuristic 1: When playing a fair deck, Force of Will should be sided out against other fair decks.

Heuristic 1, continued: This is even more true when your opponent has Veil of Summer, Pyroblast or both.


This is a classic concept surrounding Force of Will. At its core, Force is a source of card disadvantage for the player using it. Therefore, it follows that in a battle of attrition where both players are going to be trading resources that it’s better to rely on cards that trade on resources evenly, rather than willingly put yourself behind. 

Building on that, cards like Veil of Summer and Pyroblast seemingly laugh in the face of Force of Will.  Not only are you already attempting to trade two cards for one, but a major part of the advantage Force of Will generates is that you spend zero mana to prevent your opponent’s spell from resolving. These single mana anti-countermagic cards are cheap enough to be held open on crucial turns and make Force of Will look completely embarrassing. 



There are still times where this applies in Legacy. Just like with Brainstorm, these well-vetted notions of the past have years of pedigree and they’re not all completely invalidated by modern day standards. However, the power shift has had an impact on this heuristic and it’s not nearly as universal as it used to be.

The fundamental assumption of this heuristic is that your deck will have a way to either answer any card in a given matchup or form a plan that will allow you to beat it. In modern day Legacy, that is an increasingly difficult task. Between a major diversification of commonly played card types and threats that cannot be effectively removed (such as Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and Klothys, God of Destiny), it’s much more challenging to have an answer for every meaningful threat that’ll be cast. This makes it difficult to properly anticipate which cards you will need an answer for.


TarmogoyfBaleful StrixStoneforge Mystic


Additionally, one of the byproducts of the power shift in Legacy is that more decks have gained potent card advantage engines. In the past, fair decks in Legacy would rely on the sheer brute force of a Tarmogoyf or the reliable two-for-one that a card like Baleful Strix or Stoneforge Mystic would provide.


Dreadhorde ArcanistUro, Titan of Nature's Wrath


These days, the threats (namely Dreadhorde Arcanist and Uro. Have you heard of them before?) have the potential to generate a nigh-infinite amount of card advantage if they stick around. This means that the cost of two-for-one’ing yourself is greatly mitigated as you’ll more easily regain those cards later.

Finally, while cards like Pyroblast still trade extremely well with Force of Will, both of these previous points justify the inclusion of Force in the face of cheap, effective interaction. In many ways, it can be a necessary evil to have Force in your deck because the upside of being able to answer a game-ending card outweighs the cost of occasionally running into a Pyroblast. On the other hand, having threats that can bury your opponents in card advantage can accelerate the points of interaction. This means that you can force your opponents to have answers before they have time to set up, which might translate to them not having the luxury of holding up Pyroblast on a crucial turn early in the game.

All of this leads me to some new heuristics I have adopted:


New Heuristic 1: If there are cards I cannot beat, I must keep Force of Will in.


This is reflective of the increased resilience and power of modern day Magic cards. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of cards these days that require specific, immediate answers. Cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns, Dreadhorde Arcanist, Uro and Klothys all demand different types of answers and failing to produce an answer will spell the end of the game. While there’s a substantial cost to it, Force of Will can act as that answer which means you’ll never completely be cold to most cards your opponents will play.


New Heuristic 2: If my plan is more powerful than my opponent’s, Force of Will is worth keeping in.


It’s a bit funny writing this after the Brainstorm article because this is almost a direct parallel to what I said there. In the case of Brainstorm, I suggested casting it more aggressively if your deck has a game plan that will overshadow your opponent’s. In the case of Force of Will, leaving it in will create games where countering a key piece of interaction early is enough to create the snowball that will win the game. The major shift is that fair decks function more like combo decks in that there are single cards that demand timely answers and the tempo generated from a Force of Will might be helpful enough to swing a game.

This heuristic has a natural corollary, which, if you’re a frequent reader of my articles, will likely make me sound like a broken record: 


It is essential to have a game plan.


Having a specific, executable game plan to work towards will make the decision of keeping in or taking out Force of Will more straightforward. Even if your plan isn’t necessarily as strong as your opponent’s, working towards a specific goal will make the pieces of the puzzle line up more easily. 


To illustrate these two heuristics, let’s take a look at my approach to sideboarding and playing RUG Delver against Snow Control. I have had players express some confusion as to why I generally leave in every copy of Force (including Force of Negation). This is an example of a matchup that embodies all of the qualities of the old heuristic. It’s a fair deck with both Pyroblast and Veil of Summer wherein every card generally matters. Including Force of Will is pretty costly on the surface.

However, the truth is that it’s a difficult matchup for RUG. Snow Control decks have a lot of cheap interaction, which pairs with a range of threats that require some narrow answers. On top of that, I’m generally trying to side in cards that are difficult for them to answer, such as Klothys and Sylvan Library. In essence, my post-board game plan is to resolve a card that will fundamentally exploit their plan. Both of these elements (their wide-ranging threats and my own potent sideboard cards) work together to make the inclusion of Force of Will very important in my eyes.

Compare this with my plan in the RUG Delver mirror. Generally speaking, I tend to sideboard out most (if not all) of my Forces, despite the fact that there are a lot of overlapping features in that matchup and the Snow matchup. The difference is that after sideboarding, many of the cards in both of our decks will be able to be answered on a one-for-one basis. The creatures die to removal, the planeswalkers die to Pyroblast and the presence of Daze generally makes both players play a bit slower, thus giving them more time to put together some answers. 


I think these are some solid baselines for beginning the process of understanding when and where Force of Will might be worth playing. Answering the questions that these heuristics raise will make some amount of the decision making process more manageable, which is all you can really ask for from a heuristic.

Just like in my Brainstorm article, I want to emphasize that following these heuristics blindly is not the key to success. Force of Will is a complex card that comes with a high cost. Carefully evaluating the pros and cons of including it will involve a critical view of what your plan in a given matchup is.

Even in my illustration, one could default to the old heuristic for the Delver mirror and land at my general approach. It’s important to ask questions when you have an assumption about a situation and these heuristics can serve a meaningful purpose when it comes to understanding your matchups more clearly.

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