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Eight Tools to Live By


1. Tools, Not Rules

"To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

-Mark Twain

This took me, personally, a long time to wrap my head around. Maybe twenty years?

When you learn something useful, or exciting, in Magic (and you've had anything resembling a traditional, formal, education) the tendency, I think, is to try to create a general rule about it. Both of Jon Finkel's famous aphorisms actually came out of me trying to get him to dictate a general rule about how to play Magic.

Identifying opportunities for card advantage (and playing toward them) and / or tapping all your mana every turn are the biggest offenders... But I imagine you can think of some other examples yourself.

Of this I am confident: It is simply not the case that playing for card advantage is always right. Hence, there cannot be a general rule.

Arc Lightning

Sure your Arc Lightning can kill that Savannah Lions AND that Grizzly Bears! But if you have a Hill Giant back on defense but you're about to die to a swing in the sky from his Phantom Monster... The boring one-for-one is going to serve you much more than the fancy two-for-one philosophy you just read about on the Internet.

Remember how I said it took me maybe twenty years to figure this out?

Back in 2011, I was playing the last round of my first ever Star City Invitational against the great Dave Shiels. With Caw-Blade, Dave had just won the highest skill event in the history of the game, featuring thirty-two copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in his Top 8, alongside a commensurate number of Preordains &c.

But I had beaten Dave a few weeks earlier in the Top 8 of the TCGPlayer $10K where I debuted ur Splinter Twin. A quick 2-0 over Reid Duke's Dimir Control deck in the Top 4 landed me in my nth Caw-Blade matchup of the weekend, where I defeated Edgar Flores with a Consecrated Sphinx.

So, there I was. There we were. Out of contention for Top 8, but very much in contention for more money than you will typically be playing for at the local level. Dave and I traded games. I was about to land a big turn.

My options were Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Consecrated Sphinx. Dave could attack, but I assumed he'd have to give up at least a couple of cards to the Sphinx if he could answer it at all.

Memories of my quick win - and big tournament win - over Edgar with the Consecrated Sphinx only a few weeks earlier danced before my eyes. So, I leaned into the general rule. "Tap all your mana every turn."

Did I mention there is no general rule?

Dave had the only out that would not cost him: Into the Roil with kicker. He had to tap, you know, a lot... And before his draw step!

Embarrassingly, had I left my last two lands open, I would have been able to Mana Leak him!

So, here's what I can leave you with: There are no general rules. There are only tools. Let card advantage be your hammer; tempo your screwdriver; The Philosophy of Fire your sonic screwdriver.

Half the fun is just figuring out which tool is appropriate for which job. Though I'll tell you... If you've ever had to try to hammer in a nail with the handle of a screwdriver? You're more likely to crack its plastic than actually drive home that nail.

2. Flexibility is Strength

Almost every other useful principle in Magic theory comes down to some version of this simple statement.

Highly flexible Magicians find ways to win when Plan A fails. The most effective beatdown players rob their opponents of their flexibility.

When Brian Weissman was first discovering card advantage, he and his friends decided that twenty life was just not enough. So, they played with forty life! This gave them more time to develop their games (and of course, more opportunities to find card advantage).

Imagine for a moment that everything you know about Magic decks and archetypes was exactly the same. Shocks still do two damage; and people still play with Shocks. But instead of twenty life to start, you have a million life.

How might games play out differently? Control players would be able to absorb so much damage - ultimately so many cards worth of value - with their life totals, they would have all the time in the world to not only draw all the extra cards they wanted, but to make the fanciest decisions with their removal.

Think back to the initial dilemma of "Who's the Beatdown?". My buddy altran is loathe to use a Swords to Plowshares against a Jackal Pup because he has Lightning Bolt in his deck. But the pressure that Pup puts on as a result of not being Plowed on turn one makes it so that altran has to Swords to Plowshares a Ball Lightning later, which is three times worse (before you even consider that the Ball Lightning would have gone to the graveyard by itself).

Had altran a million life, he would have had the time to find the Lightning Bolt to punish the Jackal Pup. He could have used the Honorable Passage - that he actually drew - against the Ball Lightning. But pressure against his real-life life total robbed him of the flexibility to make the fanciest choices.

Anyone can win when their cards all come out the way they drew it up the night before. Memories get made when you pull it out despite the headwinds.

Fun fact - In the same big tournament, I decked opponents with both of these cards:

Compulsive Research
Fortune Thief

... One was opportunistic; one was on-plan.

3. Good Players Strive to Make Good Choices

In Magic, as in life, good choices can bring you closer to your objective... While poor choices can push you in the wrong direction.

More and more good choices can bring you incrementally closer to your goal (which is one of the reasons why the greatest of Magic's G.O.A.T.s tend to play with so much library manipulation).

A mistake that has stuck with me for around about seventeen years at this point was in my qualifying match at Regionals 2003. I did not qualify.

Forget about the fact that I threw away Game 2 by keeping a two-lander where one of the lands was a Cabal Coffers. In my head it was a cakewalk of a matchup and I was on the draw anyway.

In Game 3 I was severely flooded (the appropriate punishment for my manascrew error in Game 2). I had essentially one choice the whole game. On turn four I cast a Diabolic Tutor. While I could get "anything" I narrowed my options to:

  1. Mind Sludge
  2. Undead Gladiator

My opponent - Astral Slide - was playing just as land heavy as I was. So, he had a pretty full hand. I could expect a five-for-one with Mind Sludge.

Undead Gladiator would mitigate my own flood. I had more than enough fuel to run it multiple times, hopefully getting some action.

Assuming my hand would get better by itself, I opted for the Mind Sludge.

My opponent suddenly had no cards, and no nothing.

But so flooded was I that Game 3... He ended up killing me with a Gigapede before I drew anything to handle it. Yes; from four lands and nothing else, his rw deck in fact found GG!

The self-indulgent explanation is that I was so mana flooded that I could make no choices (good or otherwise). But the self-reflective one is that maybe I could have made my one choice differently. Because if nothing else, Undead Gladiator would have given me a lot more choices... Even if only which basic Swamp to discard.

4. The Universe Doesn't Care How It Was Supposed to Play Out

One of my good friends told me that he lost the ability to enjoy sports once he started consulting for a large public sportsbook "It's really hard to care about who wins or loses a game of basketball when someone can commit a worthless foul in the last minute, and suddenly you don't cover the spread."

I don't know of many matchups in the more than two decades of competitive play that were more lopsided than the Mono-Black against Astral Slide I just referenced. But that's why we bother to play the game.

Takeaway: A large number of preventable losses happen in the last turn of a game that was supposedly already over. Figure out what your opponent's outs are, late, and do your best to cut them off.

5. Limit Their Choices

In the summer of 1995, I joyously returned home to the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio packing Wild Growth and Llanowar Elves. My Craw Wurms and Scaled Wurms were coming out so g-d early. Rawr.

My tiny local play group had barely a Swords to Plowshares (uncommon) between us, let alone much rare removal. There was no CoolStuffInc.com or anything in the way of Gatherer.

... So, imagine my surprise the first time the local Mister Suitcase introduced me to Wrath of God.

I was playing some pretty Level Zero Green synergy. But all I was really doing was putting more and more creatures into play... Playing directly into his Wrath of God. Essentially, he was limiting my ability to win by limiting how well I could enjoy the fruits of even a successfully executed plan.

The 2020 version is a bit more like my 1995 Scaled Wurms. The aggressive player dumps his whole hand onto the table in an effort to paint the opponent into a corner. Pressure - specifically early pressure - both demands specific answers and (because defense and advancement rely on the same mana base, simultaneously) limits the opponent's ability to get his own ball rolling.

A 1-drop can be answered... But not always on turn one. That means that it will trade not only for a card... But maybe two life and a card. Not only two life... But an extra mana as well. I think it was Brad Nelson who first observed how much more effective beatdown was when actually playing a 1-drop - any 1-drop - versus starting on two.

I first wrote about this principle in The Official Miser's Guide. My friend Patrick Chapin won his Regionals his first year back, playing a Korlash deck that played Volcanic Hammer in the sideboard. We brainstormed lots of different options but came to the conclusion that all the deck wanted to do against "Scab-Clan Mauler dot dec" was to answer their 3/3 at the appropriate speed. Hence, Volcanic Hammer.

A time zone away, my once and future teammate Paul Jordan found himself playing Patrick's deck. He sided in the two Volcanic Hammers against his beatdown opponent. All was going well. He cast a mid-game Compulsive Research... Found not one, but both Hammers... And realized his opponent was sub-six.

Volcanic Hammer was there to kill 2-drops... But Paul had the flexibility to use them to win against an opponent who was a little light in the life total.

This same principle bit me in the butt... Oh, shoot. It's been a year now! I guess one of the last big tournaments I played in LAST DECEMBER was in the Top 8 of an Invitational Qualifier. I had sided in Eidolon of the Great Revel against my combo opponent. He had sided in Bonecrusher Giant for my Eidolon of the Great Revel.

Eidolon of the Great Revel is nothing if not a dual-edged sword, so... I'm sure you can see where this is going. Because the universe doesn't care how things are "supposed" to play out, his anti-Eidolon tech actually became anti-MichaelJ tech, given the self-inflicted violence of my theoretically strategic 2-drop.

7. There Is No Extra Prize for Creativity

The first tournament I ever won was not sanctioned.

A bunch of us decided we wanted to have a tournament. So, we went to my friend Jeff's house. We all threw in $5, and played for the pot.

An auxiliary prize went not to the winner of the tournament (WHICH WAS ME) but whoever had the most creative deck. Which was decided not by win percentage, but by vote.

This is the last time I can recall there being a prize for creativity.

My then-teammate Adrian Sullivan, the unofficial godfather of all things Rogue (including Cabals) put it best: Different isn't good because different is different; different is good because different wins.

There is no virtue in the abstract to difference in Magic. For difference to have value, it has to do something not only meaningfully different... But meaningfully better than whatever everyone else is doing.

Sadly, as the great Kai Budde once said, there is almost no such thing as a good "Rogue" deck. Because the minute the Rogue deck is revealed to be good, it is adopted into the metagame.

8. Novel Permanents Can Provide Outsized Value

Is Lucky Clover so powerful?

Is it more powerful than frequent teammate Edgewall Innkeeper?

Why, then, was it banned (when Innkeeper, who can also attack and block) was not?

It's largely because Edgewall Innkeeper is a 1/1 that everyone can klll while Lucky Clover is a novel artifact that everyone can kill only if they are specifically trying. If and when they are specifically trying, it can be bad times for artifacts. But they do have to be specifically trying.

The absolute best example of this principle is a Sam Black deck from a couple of years back.

At Pro Tour Milwaukee, a ho-hum Abzan deck eventually took the day. Jon Finkel not only notched his fifteenth canonical Pro Tour Top 8 but quietly defeated would-be G.O.A.T. candidate Paulo Vito Damo Da Rosa 2-0 in the Top 8.

That Top 8 featured 125 main deck creatures and 22 main deck Planeswalkers (only two of which were not Gideon, Ally of Zendikar). There were only 10 main deck enchantments... But six of them were Silkwraps.

But the "best" deck?

This deck did well not only for Sam, but multiple Constructed Pro Tour Champions... Who lapsed on the forty card decks rather than the sixties.

Sam played a lot of really good cards. But they just weren't the cards other people were playing. This was a Top 8 of Mantis Rider and Warden of the First Tree. Sam played Elvish Visionary, Wingmate Roc, and all four copies of Nissa, Vastwood Seer.

More importantly, he played a variety of enchantments that were all good - great even - but less expected than just a Silkwrap. Sam actually played more Silkwraps than most of the Top 8 Silkwrap guys... But supplemented it with giant Silkwrap and instant speed Silkwrap. More than any of those, he ran four copies of Retreat to Emeria!

What I always loved about Sam's deck was that he compromised zero on card power. He played a bunch of really good cards... They were just different good cards than the Top 8 were playing. He was much more about the Mulldrifters than the Baneslayers. And his heavy enchantments use would punish anyone without dedicated removal.

The takeaway is in that overlap. It's not just about playing weird permanents that they might not be able to easily answer... It's about playing good ones that for some reason are not as firmly established in the metagame, regardless of being good enough.



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