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Controlling Game Flow – Learning from LSV

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I’m trying something a little different this week. For those of you who play Starcraft, you may be aware of the Day[9] Daily. This is going to be a written version of that show, with fewer jokes and more content. I want to approach strategy in a systematic, step-by-step manner. I think this sort of content is lacking in the community, and I am looking to fill that void. This specific analysis is related to my article from two weeks ago and will connect to my next Controlling Game Flow article, so it will tie in even if I don’t do it again.

I would like to know if you all, my readers, would be interested in seeing this sort of content more in the future. If so, please speak up in the comments, and let me know if you have any specific sort of content that you want me to focus on. Now on to the analysis.

I want to take a look at a game played by LSV a couple weeks ago. It’s Game 3 in a match that he played on Magic Online against mono-Red while piloting Esper control. LSV makes reasonable-looking plays that are actually pretty terrible and throws away a game he probably could have won. This was the third game of Round 3 of an 8-Player Queue:

Before we delve into Game 3, we have to talk about the first two games of the round a little bit. I don’t have a lot of issues with LSV’s play in the first couple games other than his sideboarding, but we will talk about that. Let’s talk about what LSV has seen going into Game 3:

Standard stuff: Shrine of Burning Rage, Chandra's Phoenix, Stromkirk Noble, Stormblood Berserker, Grim Lavamancer

Other stuff: Goblin Fireslinger, Volt Charge, Incinerate, Galvanic Blast, Ancient Grudge, Gut Shot, Arc Trail

So, let’s think about what our opponent is probably playing—but more importantly, what he is probably not playing.

Koth of the Hammer or Hero of Oxid Ridge

Considering the variety of burn spells we have seen from our opponent, he is probably not running either of these two cards, but it is impossible to completely rule them out. I would put him on two copies of one or the other at most—but likely zero.

Brimstone Volley

This is almost certainly not in his seventy-five. He has too much other burn present to be running this. The presence of both Galvanic Blast and Volt Charge is telling. He obviously doesn’t have a high artifact count, so his choice to run Galvanic Blast tells me that he wants his burn to be cheaper rather than capable of dealing more damage. This is a fine active choice, but it definitely eliminates Brimstone Volley from consideration. I probably wouldn’t play around this card in Game 3.

Chandra, the Firebrand

Honestly, if he were running a 4-mana planeswalker, I would suspect that he would be running this and not Koth. He has a good amount of burn and is clearly running at least three if not four Volt Charges. Volt Charge is pretty sweet when you Fork it.

LSV’s sideboarding for Game 3:

+1 Dismember

+1 Divine Offering

+2 Timely Reinforcements

−1 Forbidden Alchemy

−1 Dissipate

−1 Mana Leak

−1 Ratchet Bomb

What I would do:

+1 Dismember

+2 Timely Reinforcements

+1 Volition Reins

−1 Ratchet Bomb

−1 White Sun's Zenith

−1 Dissipate

−1 Mana Leak

Why Would I Sideboard This Way

−1 Dissipate and −1 Mana Leak instead of −2 Dissipate or −2 Mana Leak Esper control is very slow, and unlike decks like my personal Solar Flare lists, it has very little way to end the game quickly or deal with Chandra's Phoenix. Thus, it is crucial to have access to Dissipate to deal with that card. However, Mana Leak is also crucial because of the speed of the deck. Sideboarding out one of each is the best way to maintain solid access to both cards.

+1 Volition Reins This is hedging against the possibility that our opponent could still be running two copies of a planeswalker he just hasn’t drawn. However, it also serves functions against the cards we have seen. What does this card do?

As an added bonus, we can always Volition Reins one of the opponent’s lands to make our Mana Leaks better in the mid to late game.

−1 White Sun's Zenith LSV mentioned why he didn’t like this card, and I think he’s right—it’s way too slow. Volition Reins is far superior as a defensive measure, and I don’t think the difference in offensive capability is significant. After all, you can kill people with a 3/3 and a bunch of random 1/1s and 2/1s.

Leaving in Forbidden Alchemy This card is the reason that Esper is able to continuously have gas in this matchup. There is never any reason to board out this card. If you are looking to board out some do-nothing cards, the correct card to board out is always Think Twice, not Forbidden Alchemy. Of course, you should just play Ponder, because Ponder is greater than Think Twice, but that is a discussion for another time.

Not bringing in Divine Offering This is a case of The Fear from control mages. Yes, Shrine of Burning Rage is a big threat, but there is absolutely no reason to bring in Divine Offering to deal with it. You already have Mana Leak, Dissipate, Oblivion Ring, and in my plan, Volition Reins. Outside of those cards, you also have the ability to force your opponent to blow Shrine with things like Consecrated Sphinx, Gideon Jura, and Elesh Norn. By changing your tactical play a little, you should be able to accommodate a Shrine, especially since your opponent has already shown himself to be a relatively conservative player.

LSV’s deck list showcases why I believe more tap-out style control decks like this one need the ability to end the game quickly. Cards like Shrine of Burning Rage punish boards on which the control player has stabilized but does not have the ability to actually kill the opponent. I see no reason why Esper control shouldn’t be running a strong offensive threat like Grave Titan that is capable of simply ending games very quickly. The best way of dealing with the Shrine-on-the-table-for-ten-turns problem is simple: Just kill the opponent before the Shrine gets there. There is no need for otherwise dead cards like Divine Offering.

The other sideboarding choices are fairly self-evident. Let’s take a look at the game itself:

Opening seven: two Glacial Fortress, Darkslick Shores, Island, Swamp, Ghost Quarter, Snapcaster Mage.

Automatic mulligan—pretty obvious.

Six-card hand: two Islands, Seachrome Coast, Drowned Catacomb, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, Think Twice

This hand is at least worth thinking about. Let’s take a look at how many draws we don’t like over the course of the next four or five turns: more lands (twenty-three remaining), two Think Twice. That’s only really twenty-five cards we don’t want to see, and we can still afford to draw at least two to three more lands and be in an okay position. There are some draws that are less than ideal (Forbidden Alchemy or Consecrated Sphinx), but those cards could potentially be useful.

What would be good to draw? Gideon Jura, Day of Judgment, Oblivion Ring, Mana Leak, Dissipate, Doom Blade, Timely Reinforcements, Dismember (twenty cards). Do we honestly have better odds with a random five-card hand than the six we see right now? Maybe, maybe not.

The real tipping point is the fact that LSV is on the draw. That is what makes this hand a mulligan. Mana Leak and Dissipate are much weaker on the draw than on the play, and if we are looking to draw defensive action, removing those from the good-cards-to-draw list makes our outs much thinner. On the play, I would think about keeping this hand. On the draw, it’s a flat mulligan.

Five-card hand: Plains, Ghost Quarter, Mana Leak, Snapcaster Mage, Timely Reinforcements

At this point, your hand has lands and spells, so you keep it, although this is among the better potential fives that could show up, as it is capable of casting Timely Reinforcements twice. Let’s look at the progression of the game:

Opponent: Mountain, Spikeshot Elder

LSV: Draw Oblivion Ring, play Plains.

Opponent: Mountain, attack with Spikeshot Elder (LSV goes to 19), then play Shrine of Burning Rage

LSV: Draw Glacial Fortress, play it, and pass.

Opponent: Mountain, attack with Spikeshot Elder (LSV goes to 18) and pass.

LSV: Draw Timely Reinforcements. Play Ghost Quarter and cast Timely Reinforcements, then pass.

LSV has two main options here: cast Timely Reinforcements or cast Oblivion Ring. Let’s take a look at these options in comparison:

Cast Oblivion Ring Take 2 damage from Shrine popping and attack from Spikeshot Elder, but give the opponent the option of making a mistake by popping Shrine in response to the O-Ring being cast rather than the trigger. Reinforcements will later be able to gain back some of the life.

Cast Timely Reinforcements Gain 6 life and make three 1/1 tokens. Act based on opponent’s response to my tokens. Save O-Ring to deal with Shrine later. Allow him to get two shots of his Spikeshot Elder’s ability off if he so desires.

In fact, there is a good chance that casting both of these spells back to back will result in the same position, whether you cast the O-Ring first or the Reinforcements first. However, casting Timely Reinforcements first is ultimately correct because the objective is to gain control over the flow of the game. Oblivion Ring allows your opponent to dictate the pace of the game, whereas Reinforcements allows you to dictate the pace of the game.

Timely Reinforcements forces your opponent to react to you, and this is always a better position to be in than reacting to your opponent. By deploying Reinforcements against just a solitary Spikeshot Elder, you force action from your opponent, and can thus plan further plays based on it. Your opponent cannot reasonably attack with Spikeshot Elder on his next turn, but he can respond in one of the following ways:

The Arc Trail line is pretty similar to the additional threats line, and additional threats could be problematic, but there is one reason why he would avoid that route: Day of Judgment. If he puts too much on the board, and thus overcommits, he can easily be punished by that card. While LSV does not have Day of Judgment in hand, his opponent doesn’t know that. What is important here is that LSV can threaten Day of Judgment and use that to help hinder his opponent’s development. If our opponent chooses this route, the hope is to draw Day of Judgment.

Remember that the key is to buy time, and Timely Reinforcements backed by the threat of Day of Judgment is the most effective means of doing so. By playing Timely Reinforcements, we buy a good amount of time and force our opponent into a reactionary position, if only temporarily. Oblivion Ring simply deals with an existing threat (Shrine), but it taps us out, which allows our opponent to continue to dictate the pace and flow of the game by selecting which threat he presents. Thus, if the plays have similar strengths, the one that allows us to dictate the flow of the game is the stronger play.

Now back to the game:

Opponent: Kill another token, pass.

LSV: Draw Day of Judgment, play Oblivion Ring on Shrine of Burning Rage.

Opponent: Kill third token, attack with Spikeshot Elder (LSV goes to 23), pass.

LSV: Draw Dissipate, pass

Opponent: Attack with Spikeshot Elder (LSV goes to 22). Play Stromkirk Noble.

LSV: Draw Think Twice, pass.

There is technically the option of Mana Leaking the Stromkirk Noble, but there is very little reason to make the play because of the extra Reinforcements and the Snapcaster Mage. With two potential Timely Reinforcements in hand, taking some extra damage is actually a good thing. This allows us to use our life total to buy time to draw extra cards and make extra land-drops, furthering our board development while effectively remaining in a similar position.

LSV cites Koth as the main reason he doesn’t main-phase the Think Twice, but I believe the better reason is Shrine of Burning Rage. Even if the top card is a land, missing a land-drop isn’t hugely damaging, and if the land card is the second card down, it won’t show up until next turn anyway. Because a good number of our lands will come in tapped or not produce Blue mana, there is strong incentive to leave up Mana Leak and not cast Think Twice main phase.

Opponent: Attack with Spikeshot Elder and Stromkirk Noble (LSV goes to 20). Pass. LSV plays Think Twice and draws Ghost Quarter EOT.

LSV: Draw Glacial Fortress. Play Glacial Fortress, play Day of Judgment. Opponent responds with Incinerate (LSV goes to 17); LSV passes.

This is LSV’s first huge mistake this game. There is absolutely no reason to cast Day of Judgment here. I’ve stressed recently how a huge portion of controlling game flow is learning to play sweepers like Day of Judgment and how the threat of the sweeper is just as important as the actual casting of the card itself. The threat of a sweeper is significantly reduced after you cast your first copy. Why? Math. By this time during the game, LSV has a 60% to 63% chance of having seen a single Day of Judgment, but only an 18% to 20% chance of having drawn two. Thus, once LSV uses his first Day of Judgment, his opponent is much less incentivized to play around it.

That reason alone is disincentive to cast the Day of Judgment here, but Day of Judgment taps us out and gives our opponent license to do whatever he wants for a turn. Consider the potential follow-ups:

More creatures – If our opponent’s plan is to follow up with more creatures, we would be in a better position if we cast Day of Judgment later (probably after our second Reinforcements) and put ourselves in a position in which we could Snapcaster Day of Judgment or Timely Reinforcements to deal with his second wave of creatures.

Shrine of Burning Rage If our opponent’s plan while we are tapped out is to Shrine, we would do better to simply take some damage and leave up Mana Leak or Dissipate to keep Shrine off the table.

Chandra’s Phoenix If our opponent’s plan includes this card, we would rather have Dissipate to deal with it, but dealing with the opponent’s Phoenix by means of the more-creatures follow-up plan is not terrible either.

Nothing – We just take 3 next turn and gain the ability to cast our Timely Reinforcements for full value. If we do that, we can still leave up Mana Leak and block his dudes, ensuring us at least two more turns to do other things, like flash back a Think Twice. During this entire time, we will have Dissipate or Mana Leak up.

4-mana planeswalker – This is a very unlikely route, but if he has it, we would obviously rather have Dissipate or Mana Leak for it.

So, looking at all these potential lines of play, I ask you: What is the advantage to casting Day of Judgment here? All of our opponent’s follow-ups are stronger than our answers, so there is very little reason to blow the Day of Judgment here. The pressure on the board is not significant yet, and Timely Reinforcements exists to buy us a couple of turns with which to get at least our fifth and maybe our sixth lands on the table. In almost every conceivable situation, we are either equally well off or better off not having cast the Day of Judgment.

LSV played this Day of Judgment way too early, and it’s what ended up costing him the game.

Opp: Shrine of Burning Rage

LSV: Draw Day of Judgment. Play Ghost Quarter, pass.

At this point, LSV is already in deep trouble. The Shrine is on the table, and his opponent has five cards in hand. Even if some of them are creatures, the ability to push Shrine up over the course of the next five turns or so is going to be hugely punishing. The main reason for this is that the Red player can effectively deny the three-creatures portion of Timely Reinforcements—and may even be able to deny the 6 life part.

LSV’s hand in this situation is highly reactive. With Mana Leak, Dissipate, Day of Judgment, and Snapcaster Mage, LSV has almost no recourse to attack his opponent. Counterspells are good at preventing you from falling further behind, but they are not very good at helping you catch up, and with a Shrine of Burning Rage on the table, LSV is already very far behind—even if he doesn’t know it. The reason for this is that our opponent is clearly playing a burn-heavy version of mono-Red. We have already seen a wide variety of burn spells from our opponent, so it is obvious that this mono-Red list has quite a bit of reach. This means that our opponent can simply burn-flurry at the end of our turn, untap, and Shrine us out. Even if we manage to cast Reinforcements for 6 life, that is only prolonging the inevitable.

The Shrine of Burning Rage here represents the end of the game if it isn’t dealt with. LSV knows this, but what he doesn’t see is that his current situation results directly from the Day of Judgment he cast last turn. It was unnecessary. He had the option of waiting and casting Timely Reinforcements this turn with Mana Leak backup (he already had five lands total at the moment he chose to cast Day of Judgment). This would have bought him two more turns at minimum, during which he could have easily drawn a land and been able to Day of Judgment with Mana Leak backup. Depending on the board situation, waiting for Dissipate backup to cast Day of Judgment was potentially reasonable as well. All of this would have easily either stopped the Shrine hitting the table or delayed it a significant amount, giving LSV time to find threats and recover easily.

Opponent: Rootbound Crag and pass. LSV flashes back Think Twice EOT, drawing Glacial Fortress.

LSV: Draw Drowned Catacomb and play it.

Here, LSV makes another huge mistake. The correct land to play is Glacial Fortress. LSV states he wants to “leave up Dissipate and Mana Leak,” but his play is inconsistent with this goal. He needs three Blue sources and only has two in play. Glacial Fortress is a Blue source that comes in untapped, and thus allows LSV to cast both Dissipate and Mana Leak without Ghost Quartering his own land.

Why would LSV play Drowned Catacomb? The answer is for future access to Black mana. However, that isn’t important at this juncture. Why? The reason is twofold. First, we don’t have any cards that require Black mana. We could draw Forbidden Alchemy or Doom Blade, but our opponent has given us the time to allow our Drowned Catacomb to be slow-rolled. Consider that if our opponent plays a relevant creature we want to Doom Blade and we draw the Doom Blade, we can still afford to use Timely Reinforcements to buy time to wait for our Drowned Catacomb to untap.

There is absolutely no reason to risk sacrificing a land to play both Dissipate and Mana Leak here.

LSV: Continue with turn by passing. Opponent plays Volt Charge EOT. LSV plays Mana Leak on Volt Charge.

Opponent: Chandra's Phoenix. LSV responds by Ghost Quartering his own land and casting Dissipate.

LSV: Draw Glacial Fortress. Play Glacial Fortress and pass.

Note at this point that LSV is already drawing very thin. His live draws are as follows: two Oblivion Rings, two Consecrated Sphinx, one Gideon Jura, one White Sun's Zenith, one Divine Offering. That’s seven cards, and in a couple of turns, Consecrated Sphinx and Gideon Jura will likely no longer be live, since the Shrine will be large enough that they won’t be able to deal with it or finish off the opponent fast enough.

Opponent: Mountain, pass.

LSV: Draw Day of Judgment, pass.

LSV is correct to not cast Reinforcements here and leave up Snapcaster Mage plus Dissipate.

Opponent: Nothing.

LSV: Draw Timely Reinforcements, pass.

Opponent: Grim Lavamancer

LSV: Draw Isolated Chapel and play it. Play Timely Reinforcements.

Opponent: Mountain, activate Lavamancer at LSV, play Stormblood Berserkers.

LSV: Draw Day of Judgment, attack, and play Day of Judgment. Opponent doesn’t block and goes to 17. LSV passes turn.

The attack here is a mistake. LSV is holding a Timely Reinforcements and is still holding a Snapcaster Mage. By attacking, he is reducing the value of his Timely Reinforcements by reducing the likelihood that he will gain the 6 life from it. His opponent can simply take 3 damage and continue to run the Shrine up, while keeping LSV’s life total higher than his. LSV has no real way to apply pressure, so the 3 damage to his opponent is not actually going to help LSV win the game appreciably faster. However, it does hurt his options for survival, as it reduces his opponent’s life total, making it more difficult for LSV to gain 6 life from his third Reinforcements.

The Day of Judgment is not necessarily the correct call either. Once again, the kicker is the second Timely Reinforcements in LSV’s hand. Remember that some cards in your hand aren’t actually doing anything until you cast them. Cards like Mana Leak and Day of Judgment have influence that extends beyond your hand, but Timely Reinforcements has a limited utility beyond the actual effect that it has on the board. If you have the Timely Reinforcements, why not try to get some use out of it?

Consider the situation that results if LSV waits a turn. His opponent can shoot a token with Grim Lavamancer, and if he has another burn spell, can get in with Stormblood Berserker. This is actually not a bad thing—LSV can gain some of the life back with a second Reinforcements, then block the Berserker, then Wrath, buying him more draw steps to find an O-Ring or some other method of dealing with Shrine.

This is not necessarily the correct line of play, as it does give his opponent more time to ramp Shrine, however. Even so, it does allow for a little more flexibility from LSV, which is something that can be useful. The thing here is to weigh the extra flexibility and the little bit of time Timely Reinforcements will buy you against the looming threat of the Shrine activation.

Opponent: Gut Shot, Stormblood Berserker, pass.

LSV: Draw Isolated Chapel, play Day of Judgment, pass.

Opponent: Nothing, pass.

LSV: Draw Consecrated Sphinx and play it. Opponent plays Gut Shot and Volt Charge EOT, and LSV scoops.

At this point, the last couple turns are fairly academic. Due to the Shrine of Burning Rage, LSV needs to put something on the table to win the game. The mono-Red player knows this and is waiting for that opportunity to burn-flurry. When LSV finally taps down for the Consecrated Sphinx, the mono-Red player takes the opportunity to unleash the lethal burn spells.

This game is an excellent example of how even a professional-level player like LSV can make elementary errors in managing the flow of the game using cards like Day of Judgment and Timely Reinforcements. Due to LSV’s poor management of these resources, he put himself in a situation in which he had to deal with a Shrine from a burn-heavy opponent who had a bunch of spells in hand.

The key to playing control against proactive decks (the most basic of which is aggro) is to learn how to control the tempo and flow of the game. Cards like Day of Judgment, Dissipate, Mana Leak, and Timely Reinforcements are great at accomplishing this goal if you use them correctly. However, if you don’t, you can often find yourself in bad situations that are difficult—if not impossible—to play your way out of.

When dealing with decks like mono-Red, it’s extremely important to realize that the key resource is not cards or life—but time. Time is very well connected to both cards and life, but it is, in fact, a fundamentally different resource. LSV’s usage of Day of Judgment clearly demonstrates this. He was concerned with his life total and the fact that his opponent had deployed sufficient resources to make Day of Judgment profitable from a card-advantage standpoint. Thus, he didn’t think twice about playing Day of Judgment when, in fact, if you think about the game in the context of the proper resource—time—it is obviously a bad play.

The overall key is to frame the play of your cards in the correct manner. Are you concerned about life, cards, or time? These three resources are interrelated, but they are not the same, and if you do not think about the game in the proper sense, you can easily get yourself into trouble. Remember that the next time you are considering what line of play to take. Remember that time is its own separate resource that can be gained and lost, and take that into account when you decide what the correct line of play is.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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