The vast majority of Magic formats have players facing off one on one, and most people tend to focus too much on their own parts of the game: “What do I do here?” “What are my best attacks?” “What are my outs?” It’s easy to forget that there is a whole other breathing, thinking person sitting across the table from you, and there’s a huge advantage to be gained from trying to put yourself in his or her shoes and seeing the game from his or her perspective. Your opponent’s decisions and actions are a huge part of the game of Magic, and being able to anticipate them and act accordingly is one of the fundamental pillars of basic Magic strategy.
This manifests itself most clearly in playing around spells. Using Khans of Tarkir Limited as a base, let’s look at the below board state:
Imagine the only card in our hand is Savage Punch and that our opponent has three cards in his or her hand. Naturally, we’d like to cast Savage Punch on our Abzan Guide and clear the way for a big hit, including removing our opponent’s creature and gaining 12 life. A turn like this is a huge swing and could easily tip the balance of favor in our direction.
Now let’s consider what could go wrong: what cards could our opponent have that he or she can cast in this position. In this case, knowledge of the cards in Khans of Tarkir is essential, and a quick mental scan of instant-speed spells that our opponent could have with two Mountains and an Island reveals that there really isn’t a lot our opponent could have. The only real concern here is Force Away, which our opponent could cast in response to our Savage Punch for a huge tempo swing. He or she could also cast Winterflame, which would cause the Snowhorn Rider to trade for our Abzan Guide. This isn’t quite as bad, but we’ll go into that later. The opponent could also have Stubborn Denial to counter our Savage Punch—or Mindswipe.
Now if we just make a small change to the battlefield, we’ll see how it opens up things for our opponent:
Now we can see how things open up. Our opponent has 4 mana now and access to green. He or she could now have Awaken the Bear or even Become Immense, depending on his or her graveyard, and both of these would allow his or her Snowhorn Rider to eat our Abzan Guide upon resolution.
The opponent could now also have Cancel available—as well as Temur Charm to eat our Abzan Guide with his or her Rider before the Savage Punch resolves. Just by untapping one land, we’ve drastically expanded the things we have to consider.
Simply by untapping that Frontier Bivouac, our list of considerations more than doubles in size and drastically worsens.
Once you’ve identified what cards your opponent may have in his or her hand, the next thing to consider is how bad each of those is for you. As the board sits, though we have not stated life totals, we are essentially stalled out. Our opponent could attack through our Abzan Guide, but we would win the race if we attacked back. If our Savage Punch resolves, we will be rocketing ourselves into command of the game. In our case, Mindswipe, Cancel, and Stubborn Denial are simple one-for-ones, and that’s not a huge detriment to our game plan. It leaves us in the same state we were in before. Winterflame means that we still are able to trade for the Snowhorn Rider, which is a two-for-two and leaves us on even footing.
Force Away means we have to recast our Abzan Guide later on, but if we hit a land drop, we can simply cast it for 6 mana. This means our opponent gets a free hit with his Rider, is able to spend his or her turn developing his or her board while we have to repair ours, and he or she also gains a loot trigger to improve his or her card selection. These are all bad for us, but none is a game-ending sequence of events, and we may return to the same stall next turn.
Awaken the Bear, Become Immense, and Temur Charm all yield the same result: We lose our Guide, and our opponent keeps the Rider. We have been two-for-one’d and are behind, as our opponent has free reign to hit us with his Rider on his or her turn and continue to develop his or her board. Depending on our draws, it could be very difficult to win the game from this point.
To summarize, if our opponent’s Bivouac is tapped, there are four cards he or she could have—three of them are fine, and one is a tempo hit. If it is untapped, there are eight the opponent could have, three of which are extremely bad for us. Those aren’t excellent odds, and the list only grows if we include Fate Reforged, but there are still a few other things to consider.
Is this Game 2 or Game 3? Have we seen any of these cards from our opponent previously? What has he or she been doing in the last few turns that indicates he or she may or may not have these cards in hand. Consider whether he or she has been using all his or her mana, whether he or she has been playing lands, and so on.
The most difficult thing for players to come to terms with is understanding when he or she is not in a position to play around a card—in essence, playing around a card that results in an unwinnable game state. In this case, you have to assume that the other person does not have that card and play accordingly—there is nothing you can do about it if he or she does. This is a difficult pill to swallow, and it’s something I struggle with when playing, but it is also important not to jump to this conclusion too quickly. In this case, we only have 2 mana available, but imagine all five of our lands were untapped.
Now consider if we had more than just the Savage Punch in hand. What if our hand looked like this?
If our hand looks like this and we have 5 mana, drawing cards with the Bitter Revelation and casting our Alabaster Kirin are both viable plays. If our opponent has his or her full 4 mana and six cards we have to worry about, casting one of these is much less risky than the Savage Punch and is probably advisable. If he opponent only has two lands untapped, it may be worthwhile going for gold and trying to generate the most out of the Punch.
There are other things to consider when playing around spells, but this should be a good starting point. Consider what your opponent may have, how bad each of those options is for you, and what your options are, and factor all of that into taking the least risk for the most reward. Player preference and your ability to read your opponent will all come into play, but by thinking through what all of the possibilities are, you put yourself into the best position to swing the game in your favor.