Magic strategy has a rich and storied history with representative pieces from great novels layered together: villains and heroes, cheaters and vindication, and so many of the same theories reiterated that they have becomes a religious text for competitors and commentators alike.
I'm not going to judge whether specific principles or ideals are "correct" or not, however I have noticed something that's been nagging me for quite some time: regardless of the time or "era" of playing, it's the same tips and ideas being rehashed, repeated, and reiterated. There hasn't been too much in terms of innovative theory and change.
I recently acquired the box, sleeve, and booklet insert for the Anthologies release. The reason, if you're curious, is that the Anthologies box perfectly holds all of my basic lands for my cube. Yes, I even pimp my cube's containers where possible.
More importantly is that the Anthologies insert booklet is a portal to a prior point in Magic history. It's like a time capsule of information, sealed and unchanged even after all these years. As stated: "The rules in this booklet are current as of November 1, 1998." We're just about on the 12th anniversary of the product which included, among numerous things, several "Strategy Tips" to use while playing.
The tips weren't geared specifically around playing either of the two decks, also included, but Magic strategy in general; informative and brief blurbs of things to consider and follow while playing that were self-described as "focuses on good ‘Magic habits.'" What were these tips? Let's cover all seven of them.
1. Look for card advantage.
The description in the book related to sending a Giant Spider into two of your opponent's 2/2 creatures. Giant Growth, if used after a double block of the Spider, creates a two-for-one. This is basic card advantage and is very relevant in most Limited environments.
However the story continued on to impress the requirement that the defending player's lands all be tapped: this virtually removes any chance that player will respond with something. This digs deeper to an unstated but important concept: reading your opponent. Knowing the general make up and strategy of your opponents and their decks will drive your ability to create two-for-ones and other favorable situations.
What's interesting is that effort isn't made to explicitly define card advantage in terms of multiple metrics or deck archetype goals; it's simply implied as using less cards than your opponent. Beautifully simplistic, this straightforward lens for considering interactions is still the pillar of what's considered card advantage today.
"Virtual" card advantage, designing decks to "blank" – render useless or nearly useless – specific cards opponents will use, and most theories around the strength of drawing extra cards are all rooted in the idea that by forcing your opponent to use more cards than yourself you sculpt a position of relative strength in comparison.
The story of the aggressive Giant Spider is merely an allegory to prompt exploration these types of ideas for those who have not thought about them before.
2. Bluff occasionally.
Intuitively, after describing a situation where a spell caused one player great advantage during combat – the ubiquitous "combat trick" – the immediate concern is "Won't the opponent know what I'm up to?" Varying, and making calculated yet random bluffs, is another way to gain an edge. The goal of bluffing is that "if your opponent thinks what you want her to think, it'll make her play the way you want."
There might be something to be said that the chosen gender to personify the opponent is female but, more importantly, bluffing in Anthologies terms is basically a blunt, inelegant form of "Jedi mind tricks."
Bluffing is part theatrics, part very calculated sequencing of revealing information, and part psychology. Reading your opponent's approach to how they are handling you will allow you to play and order your actions in ways that reinforce their view which leads to the ultimate goal: controlling the flow and process of the game due to incorrect assumptions placed by opponents.
Yes, the Giant Spider was back again but the basic premise of pursuing advantages and presenting situations that lead an opponent to an incorrect decision is a powerful way to progress.
3. Save your destruction spells for then you need them.
The story here is one of you holding a Swords to Plowshares, having a beefy Carnivorous Plant out, and an opponent with three puny Goblins of various types. Destroying a creature, or exiling in this case, almost always feels good but with the angry Plant in the way there is no practical reason to use the removal.
Holding it for something that will be problematic is the good decision.
But there's more underlying this can basic "common sense" in terms of what to kill: removal and other spells that disrupt your opponent are often best used reactively rather than proactively. Letting your opponent commit resources first, be it mana, permanants, or other spells, lets you choose how to handle it. It's the flip side to bluffing: correctly reading your opponent.
4. If you need to destroy something, do it at the last reasonable moment.
Continuing the same message, the story considers when to kill a creature with flying that shows up. Doing it immediately leaves you in the same position as waiting to do it before damage is dealt if the creature is attacking so thee advantage to using removal immediately is minimal or nonexistent. Even more importantly, what if something bigger and meaner was played before attackers were declared? You'd want your removal for that instead, right?
Reacting to not just what your opponent is doing, like attacking, and instead looking for what your opponent may do next, like playing a better creature, pushes away from immediately playing spells and further into waiting to see all of the available information.
It's also a form of resource management; moving immediately empties your hand faster and doesn't leave you with any options down the road. This isn't to say that there aren't times when you want to react immediately, like to nuke a Primevial Titan or Sun Titan before it has a chance to attack, but by and far waiting as long as possible leaves you stronger and more capable at every stage of the game.
5. If you have lands you don't need, keep them in your hand instead of playing them.
The blurb that follows this tip is very brief but to the main point: cards in hand are an extension of bluffing and holding removal or other spells: your opponent will have more difficulty reading the situation when there is at least one card in your hand.
It seems so simplistic yet how many of us used to simply drop every land every time? How many "new" players follow the intuitive principle of "Great! More land so I'll play it!" In learning the game we often struggle to construct decks that have sufficient no more than the required number of lands. It's the search for the Goldilock's "just right" number that is a tricky point on the learning curve.
Dropping every land into play is often the response of playing more creatures and spells at the higher end of the curve than is "correct" to do. Big creatures and spells are flashy, cool, and are easier to grok for new players than Kird Apes and Wall of Omens despite the "obviously evident" power such less flashy cards contain.
What's really curious about the Anthologies blurb is that the second half of it is devoted to having lands in hand in the event that Armageddon is cast; you'll need those extra lands then! Today's Magic environments have been specifically designed and developed to curtail and minimize the power of land destruction as a form of resource denial. While cards like Melt Terrain and Tectonic Edge have their places in certain types of decks there isn't any efficient way to destory all lands in play. Even the "new Wildfire" of Destructive Force only takes out five while costing seven itself.
Keeping extra lands in hand isn't required to play around Armageddon anymore. The rhetorical question I'll leave you with here is this: Do we really want to be playing around Armageddon through to this day?
6. Give your opponent every chance to make a mistake.
The situation is simple: you have an active Nevinyrral's Disk and a puny creature against stronger creatures. You should attack because even if the opponent blocks and kills your creature you were going to lose it anyway to the Disk. If they don't block, you've profited.
Letting your opponent make mistake is an easy concept to grasp but there is an implication left unstated: you, too, can be making mistakes. The reason the message isn't pushed is because you making mistakes is often irrelevant: capitalizing on your opponent's mistakes is often more immediately useful and evident than refining your personal skill set.
Getting "good" at Magic is a long process that involves playing through thousands of hours of games across a wide variety of environments. Learning to play to your plan and jump at opponent's missteps against it is much easier to do. Consider the brutal consistency of monored Sligh/Burn decks, the nearly universally referred Red Deck Wins types, and how much easier it is to pound in a little extra damage when the opponent miscalculates the total potential damage.
I'm not saying that RDW is "autoplay" because against controlling decks and weenie decks there is a lot to be said about ordering plays and choosing which blockers to kill and which to simply bash through. What I am saying is that the concept of "review the board" is much more straightforward than "intense self-examination of series of plays and games in order to understand where personal errors caused game missteps."
Of course, once you've understood that opponents can be making mistakes it won't be long until you being asking yourself what mistakes your making. Starting with the easier concept naturally leads to the more difficult and important level of review.
7. If you can win only if certain things are true, assume those things are true and play accordingly.
Best summarized as "Play to your outs." the story in the booklet is a detailed breakdown of a board state and that assuming the top card of your library is a Mountains means that you can win. It's a cute story that has been demonstrated repeated in Limited environments over time. It's the allegory of Nassif's "Cruel Ultimatum called shot" and other such "If I draw X I win. So I did." stories.
The underlying principle is one of focus: getting caught up in "what ifs" and focusing on something other than "What can I do to win." will lead to errors and mistakes. Overthinking things is a common problem for the analytic types playing Magic. It's easy to begin to unconsciously play around something when doing so becomes detrimental to winning. I know I've done this on numerous occasions and even in trying to recognize it happening it still happens.
Assuming "If X and Y, then I win." can be very powerful when your opponent is looking for the same thing. Fighting your way to your outs is one thing, but following through with execution to win the game from the dominate position is just as critical. When you're about to win you must assume that, yes, you're going to win. To begin playing completely conservatively in the face of imminent victory is another common mistake.
Here the assumption becomes "If you can win only if your opponent doesn't have the out." Winning can be a tricky, attrition-loaded affair over many turns. Or it can be as simple as grabbing it immediately. Knowing to grab it is just as important and assuming you can still win it later.
Everything You Know is Wrong
Anthologies has a special place in my heart. I vividly recall the box and decks that my friend had in the cafeteria, and remembered paging through all of the descriptions about the sets released up to that point. I didn't remember the strategy tips because I assumed that it was only for playing the included decks.
While the examples were written with the deck lists in mind, the underlying implications and challenges to players are still relevant today. I sometimes wonder what Magic would be to me today if I had taken playing "more seriously" early on. Ultimately, however, I know that I love Magic and the many things that weren't within the strategy section, such as the write up about Organized Play and that there are places and ways for everyone, competitive or not, to play together.
Magic is more than exercises in optimization and psychology; Magic is a social glue that binds me to so many people in my area, across the internet, and everywhere in between. This, too, is an unchanging principle in Magic after all these years.