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Magic is a game of resource-management. This means, at its core, every single interaction is meant to exchange some sort of resource for another. Sometimes the trades are favorable (trading nothing for something when you block a 2/2 with your 4/4) and don’t seem like an exchange.

Life is simultaneously the most important and least important resource for every player. Life doesn’t really contribute very much in the way of winning the game (Hatred-esque effects aside), but if a player runs out of it they are dead. Period. It does not matter how far ahead that player is. It doesn’t matter if they have a full board and a grip of 7 cards, because they have lost the game.

This brings out a strange conundrum in Magic: trying to figure out when your hand or your life is more valuable during each stage in the game. A lot of this comes from an understanding of the amounts of damage a Magic deck can deal in a single turn (from varying board states).

Take Modern Jeskai Control for example:

At a glance this deck is going to have a bit of trouble closing out a game without a copy of Nahiri, the Harbinger putting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play. Imagine facing down the following board:

Despite seeming fairly innocuous, if the Jeskai player has an untapped land, a Snapcaster Mage, and a Lightning Bolt, they can deal 12 damage to their opponent between the opponent’s end step and combat through this sequence:

  1. Jeskai player casts Lightning Bolt targeting their opponent
  2. Jeskai player uses Snapcaster Mage to flashback Lightning Bolt targeting their opponent
  3. Jeskai player plays an untapped land and taps 5 mana to activate Celestial Colonnade
  4. Jeskai player attacks with Snapcaster Mage and Celestial Colonnade

While 12 damage may not seem like very much (only 60% of one’s starting life total), in a format with shock lands, Thoughtseize, fetch lands, Dark Confidant, Mutagenic Growth, and other ways to pay life, 12 isn’t as much life as one would expect.

Lightning Bolt is a card I’ve already spoken in depth about, but the application to these types of scenarios is undeniable. Context is everything; and, while the Jeskai player has the ability to deal 12 points of damage in a single burst, they are unlikely to actually do it unless the coast is clear. The aforementioned play uses two cards fantastic at keeping a situation under control (Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt) for the sake of nothing more than dealing damage.

At what point should the Jeskai player turn the corner and begin converting their spells to damage? There are a handful of relatively clear reasons which could lead a control player to start trying to kill their opponent:

  • It denies a resource (The difference between 13 and 16 life is enormous if the opponent is playing Griselbrand)
  • The card won’t get used anyway (Pointing Lightning Bolt at the opponent before discarding down to 7 cards from an 8 card hand.)
  • A racing situation in which Lightning Bolt can’t do anything else (Ex: Against a Thrun, the Last Troll)

These are all pretty cut-and-dry reasons to fire off a Between Aggro/Beatdown and Control) based on the amount of damage they can present versus the amount of damage the opponent can put out. This is because the best deck in Standard is a glorified Midrange deck:

A lot of the strength in this deck is it's good while it is ahead and it is good at coming back from behind. [card]Archangel Avacyn" href="/p/Magic%3A+The+Gathering/Lightning+Bolt%5B%2Fcard%2C+but+the+other+times+aren%27t+easily+summarized+in+a+bullet+point+or+two.%0D%0A%0D%0AToday%27s+Standard+format+is+an+example+of+a+format+which+greatly+rewards+people+who+can+change+their+role+%28%3Ca+href+%3D+%22http%3A%2F%2Fwww.starcitygames.com%2Fmagic%2Ffundamentals%2F3692_Whos_The_Beatdown.html%22+target%3D%22_blank%22%3EBetween+Aggro%2FBeatdown+and+Control%3C%2Fa%3E%29+based+on+the+amount+of+damage+they+can+present+versus+the+amount+of+damage+the+opponent+can+put+out.+This+is+because+the+best+deck+in+Standard+is+a+glorified+Midrange+deck%3A%0D%0A%0D%0A%5Bcardlist+title%3DG%2FW+Tokens+%26mdash%3B+Shadows+over+Innistrad+Standard+%7C+Emma+Handy%2C+24th+SCG+Open%5D%0D%0A%5BCreatures%5D%0D%0A2+Lambholt+Pacifist%0D%0A4+Archangel+Avacyn%0D%0A4+Hangarback+Walker%0D%0A4+Sylvan+Advocate%0D%0A%5B%2FCreatures%5D%0D%0A%5BPlaneswalkers%5D%0D%0A4+Gideon%2C+Ally+of+Zendikar%0D%0A4+Nissa%2C+Voice+of+Zendikar%0D%0A%5B%2FPlaneswalkers%5D%0D%0A%5BSpells%5D%0D%0A2+Secure+the+Wastes%0D%0A4+Dromoka%27s+Command%0D%0A1+Declaration+in+Stone%0D%0A1+Evolutionary+Leap%0D%0A1+Stasis+Snare%0D%0A4+Oath+of+Nissa%0D%0A%5B%2FSpells%5D%0D%0A%5BLands%5D%0D%0A7+Plains%0D%0A8+Forest%0D%0A2+Westvale+Abbey%0D%0A4+Canopy+Vista%0D%0A4+Fortified+Village%0D%0A%5B%2FLands%5D%0D%0A%5BSideboard%5D%0D%0A2+Den+Protector%0D%0A1+Evolutionary+Leap%0D%0A2+Silkwrap%0D%0A1+Aerial+Volley%0D%0A1+Clip+Wings%0D%0A2+Linvala%2C+the+Preserver%0D%0A2+Angelic+Purge%0D%0A2+Declaration+in+Stone%0D%0A2+Tragic+Arrogance%0D%0A%5B%2FSideboard%5D%0D%0A%5B%2Fcardlist%5D%0D%0A%0D%0A%3Chr+%2F%3E%0D%0A%0D%0AA+lot+of+the+strength+in+this+deck+is+it%27s+good+while+it+is+ahead+and+it+is+good+at+coming+back+from+behind.+%5Bcard%5DArchangel+Avacyn">Lightning Bolt[/card, but the other times aren't easily summarized in a bullet point or two.

Today's Standard format is an example of a format which greatly rewards people who can change their role (Between Aggro/Beatdown and Control) based on the amount of damage they can present versus the amount of damage the opponent can put out. This is because the best deck in Standard is a glorified Midrange deck:

A lot of the strength in this deck is it's good while it is ahead and it is good at coming back from behind. [card]Archangel Avacyn is exceptional when G/W is blocking, as it gives a free combat step of profitable blocks. Against the sweeper-heavy control decks, Avacyn is a protection spell stapled to a Serra Angel. When smaller decks are trying to go under whatever Archangel Avacyn is doing, she can just clear the board when she transforms.

Most of the cards in the deck can be interpreted in a similar fashion due to a seemingly endless pile of modal spells. Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar both have tokens on the defense and “Get em dead”-styled anthems included on a single card. Sylvan Advocate matches up well against the 2-power threats the Humans decks tend to present, but, due to having Vigilance, it can apply pressure while staying on defense. Westvale Abby can produce a free chump blocker every turn or do an exceptional Spirit of the Night impression to close a game out of nowhere.

In all of the games I’ve played with G/W Tokens, I have found the hardest card in the deck to properly assess by miles is Secure the Wastes. Oftentimes, the card is dropped on the table with an X value of six or seven before a couple of anthem effects put the game out of reach for the opponent. There is a significant number of cases where I’ve found it correct to Secure the Wastes for one or two Warriors in order to gain a specific on-board advantage or for mana-efficiency purposes.

One instance of this was in a game where I found myself with a G/W Tokens opponent at nine who was a bit mana screwed and just played their fifth land before passing the turn. I controlled an Archangel Avacyn and a Plant Token from a freshly-cast Nissa, Voice of Zendikar.

With only two cards in hand (Dromoka's Command and Secure the Wastes) and 2 mana available I cast Secure the Wastes for a single 1/1 Token. After drawing a card I rolled Nissa down and attacked for eight damage with a 5/5 Angel, a 1/2 Plant, and a 2/2 Warrior. My opponent flashed in an Avacyn to block, and a Dromoka's Command later, they took exactly nine damage before losing the game.

In the case the opponent had their own Secure the Wastes instead of Avacyn, it provides a sequence of play that still results in their dying.

  1. Opponent casts Secure the Wastes for four and single-blocks each token.
  2. Cast Dromoka's Command to put a +1/+1 counter on Avacyn and make the Plant fight another Warrior token.
  3. When Command resolves, the Plant will have a single damage on it; and when combat damage resolves the Plant will die and the opponent will go to three.
  4. When Avacyn flips on their next upkeep they take three and lose.

This is one of the more absolute scenarios in which using a card for less than its normal value is correct (due to the fact the opponent is exactly dead afterward). Many scenarios involve leveraging advantage against permanent sources of card advantage (like Planeswalkers) or understanding which deck’s cards are the most powerful or more likely to take over a game.

A majority of G/W Tokens mirror matches will be decided by who is able to maintain control of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. This can create a plethora of odd situations in which throwing cards away for the sake of killing Gideon is correct, because Gideon is (almost) the only thing that matters.

The important of killing Gideon as quickly as possible leads to a lot of scenarios in which (despite it being strictly disadvantageous from a card-advantage perspective) it is correct to cast a face-up Den Protector and begin making it larger due to its ability to slip past Knight Ally tokens.

The best way to identify when it is correct to sacrifice card advantage for the sake of leveraging position is by understanding what aspects of any given matchup are important.

Against a Seasons Past deck, it is important to have copies of Angelic Purge over Dromoka's Command to answer Virulent Plague, despite Angelic Purge being card disadvantage. A deck playing Seasons Past has the ability to recur cards from the graveyard and spending a bit of extra mana and cards to make sure that the Plague is permanently dealt with is an integral part of tackling the matchup.

All of the previous examples highlight ways to utilize spells in ways that may otherwise seem counter-intuitive or “wrong” under most circumstances. A large part of Magic is using problem-solving skills to squeeze as much value out of every resource as possible. The best games of Magic are won at a single point of life. The best plays are made when every bit of mana is used and all of the pieces ‘fit’. When evaluating each spell in a deck, in a hand, on a given board state, be sure everything is doing what it can to hand you victory.

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