I want to talk a little this week about the nitty-gritty details of playing Magic tactically. The primary idea behind tactics is correct card use, and one of the most basic principles to learn is how to act in the aggro-versus-control matchup. I want to take a look at two games over the course of a relatively lengthy play session against a friend of mine. He is learning control, and I feel that these two games are demonstrative of some general principles and mistakes that I see a lot of players make. It is important to note that both players are playing blind. Neither is familiar with his opponent’s exact deck list.
Here are the contestants:
"Mono-Red by David Doberne"
- Creatures (20)
- 2 Goblin Arsonist
- 2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 2 Spikeshot Elder
- 3 Chandra’s Phoenix
- 3 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- Planeswalkers (3)
- 3 Koth of the Hammer
- Lands (23)
- 23 Mountain
"Solar Flare by Akira Asahara"
- Planeswalkers (2)
- 2 Liliana of the Veil
- Spells (25)
- 3 Doom Blade
- 3 Think Twice
- 4 Dissipate
- 4 Forbidden Alchemy
- 4 Mana Leak
- 1 Unburial Rites
- 3 Day of Judgment
- 3 Oblivion Ring
Once again, I won’t be using sideboards, because this isn’t about learning these two specific decks, it’s about learning general card-use principles. I also chose Solar Flare, not because I like the deck (if that was the reason, I would’ve used my list from last week) but because I felt the matchup was more interesting than versus U/B control. The issue with the U/B control matchup is Shrine of Burning Rage. U/B has no real way of dealing with that card, so the mono-Red player has a very simple tactical goal—resolve an early Shrine of Burning Rage, and U/B is pretty much guaranteed to lose to it. I felt that that was relatively uninteresting, so I went with a control deck that was more capable of interacting with that card.
This first game was played relatively early in our play session and demonstrates what I feel are some basic mistakes that many players will not see. Here’s the full game. Solar Flare is on the play.
We’ll start with the initial opening hands. Mono-Red’s opening hand is a little bit soft, as it is very reliant on the Grim Lavamancer connecting on turn two. On the draw, there are a lot of potential problems with that plan. However, the draw does have a strong curve with only three lands and four spells, so six is not likely to be better.
As far as Solar Flare is concerned, there is one major problem with this hand—it’s land-light. Solar Flare already has an ambitious mana base, and this hand will only complicate Solar Flare’s ability to hit its land-drops. However, this hand is not without action. There are two copies of Think Twice as well as one copy of Forbidden Alchemy to help the Solar Flare player dig and find lands. Doom Blade and Mana Leak are also both castable, and thus the Solar Flare player will be able to defend himself. All in all, also not a very strong hand, but I feel that this is going to be far stronger than a random six. I would like one Think Twice to be a land, but that isn’t going to make or break this hand.
So, here the Solar Flare player makes his first mistake. The main problem with his hand is the lack of lands, and his first draw was not a land. Although the Solar Flare player is under pressure, he is not going to win this game unless he is able to both develop his mana and defend himself. The decision point is when the Grim Lavamancer attacks. The control player has the following legitimate-looking lines of play:
- Doom Blade on Grim Lavamancer or trade Snapcaster Mage for it
- Hold up 2 mana for the follow-up to the attack (Mana Leak for both Shrine and Berserker, possibly Doom Blade for Stormblood Berserker)
- Think Twice
Let’s examine all three of these potential plays. The first thing to consider is, why would the opponent attack with Grim Lavamancer? There are only two reasonable explanations:
- The opponent needs to trigger Bloodthirst for Stormblood Berserkers
- The opponent intends to spend both his remaining mana on either two 1-drops or Shrine of Burning Rage. Lavamancer is not doing anything, so might as well get in for 1.
If my opponent is on Stormblood Berserker as a follow-up, killing the Lavamancer is absolutely devastating. It makes his second turn completely and utterly blank while dealing with his only threat. However, if he isn’t on Stormblood Berserker, the play is absolutely terrible. It allows him to drop a Shrine on the table early, a card to which the control player has very limited answers. This is a very high-risk play that is viable under one of two circumstances:
- Your hand is weak, and therefore you need to get lucky to win.
- You have a good way of handling the “bad” follow-up—in this case, Shrine.
Because Solar Flare is realistically in neither situation, this line of play is a bit too risky.
The second line of play is the one I feel most people are going to take. If our opponent plays Shrine of Burning Rage, obviously Mana Leaking it is going to be good for us. But now we reach the actual situation at hand—the opponent plays Stormblood Berserker. Our two options to deal with it are Mana Leak and Doom Blade.
Of the two, Doom Blade is the superior option. (Note: Mana Leak seems like a reasonable option here, because in general, Mana Leak should be used early before it becomes ineffective. However, versus a deck like Mono-Red that develops mana slowly, your window for Mana Leak is much larger than against a deck like G/W tokens, which is well capable of ramping past Mana Leak very quickly with cards like Avacyn's Pilgrim and Birds of Paradise.) Why? The main reason is that your Mana Leak is the more flexible of the two answers in the long term. One of mono-Red’s major threats to you is burn, and Mana Leak deals with burn (in particular Brimstone Volley). Thus, if you are going to use a spell here to deal with the Berserker, using Doom Blade is better.
But neither is actually the correct line of play. The proper line of play here is to ignore the Stormblood Berserker and to play Think Twice. Why? The answer is twofold. The first part lies in long-term development. Solar Flare is not going to win the game on two, three, or four lands. Solar Flare is going to need to hit probably 6 to 8 mana to successfully take this game. Because the deck is filled with a number of spells that do nothing, Solar Flare cannot afford to miss its early land-drops. As much as it hurts to allow the Berserker to resolve and take 3 from it, Solar Flare will almost certainly suffer more damage in the long term as it is unable to draw sufficient answers to mono-Red’s threats.
The second part is card economy. Because Solar Flare’s answers are few in number, it is necessary to allocate them to the proper threats. Doom Blade on Stormblood Berserker is probably fine, but Mana Leak is an example of wasting a card. Stormblood Berserker is, at this juncture, not worth the Mana Leak. Mana Leak is best for dealing with threats like Shrine of Burning Rage, Brimstone Volley, and Koth of the Hammer because Solar Flare has more ways of dealing with creatures than with noncreatures. Thus, if the situation is not dire (and on turn two it isn’t), using Mana Leak to deal with Stormblood Berserker is an example of bad card economy.
The specific draw in this game will go to show how badly Solar Flare can be punished for sequencing its spells incorrectly. Let’s go back to the game.
Here we begin to see the difference already. If Solar Flare had played Think Twice instead of Doom Blade during his opponent’s last end step, he wouldn’t have had to tap down for Think Twice in his main phase, leaving up mana for Doom Blade during his opponent’s next turn, achieving the same situation but giving his opponent less confidence. This brings up a critical point—if you play Think Twice first, you can always Doom Blade the Berserker during your next main phase. There is absolutely no reason to play the Doom Blade first.
Here, let’s take a look at how different the game would look if Solar Flare simply made the Glacial Fortress drop and passed. Now, the mono-Red player is in a bind. Playing Chandra's Phoenix could easily result in its being Dissipated, which would not be a good outcome. In all likelihood, the mono-Red player simply attacks for 4, dropping the Solar Flare player to 15, and leaves up Brimstone Volley. Thus, the Solar Flare player has successfully kept the Chandra's Phoenix off the table and can now Doom Blade the Berserker safely or cast Think Twice again to draw more lands.
Of course, in this scenario, it’s also necessary to consider the level of play of your opponent. A good opponent is more likely to play around the Dissipate with his Chandra's Phoenix, and thus rely on the threats he has on the table. A bad opponent would likely jam the Phoenix, forcing you to use a spell. Even so, if you use the Doom Blade, you are still in the same position as you are now. Thus, not playing Think Twice at the end of his opponent’s last turn already has had an opportunity cost for the Solar Flare player. The option to take the line in the previous paragraph has been lost.
SF: Draw and play Drowned Catacomb, pass.
Here we only see the game further rub the Solar Flare’s turn-two mistake in his face by providing a land off the top. The Solar Flare player then further compounds this mistake by wasting another card—the Snapcaster Mage. The control player here should ask why the red mage would leave Grim Lavamancer untapped when he has previously shown a willingness to attack with it. The answer is simple—the red mage is going to play a burn spell in his second main phase and activate Lavamancer at the end of his opponent’s turn.
The most likely candidates for burn are Arc Trail and Incinerate, since the red mage only has 3 mana available and needs 1 to activate the Lavamancer. Geistflame is also possible, but it is less worrisome than either of the two above options. So, the question becomes, is either of those worth a card? Assuming the Phoenix is allowed to hit, the Solar Flare player goes to 14. Allowing an Incinerate to hit will drop the Flare player to 11, whereas an Arc Trail will drop the Flare player to 12. Effectively, after the burn spell, the Flare player will be at either 9 or 10 because he has no way of stopping the Lavamancer activation.
This is a perfectly fine situation to be in. Why? Because at this point the Solar Flare player can clean up the board. Doom Blading both the Lavamancer and the Chandra's Phoenix allows the Solar Flare player to squeeze in a Think Twice at the end of his opponent’s turn. If he forgoes a Doom Blade on the Lavamancer, leaving it on the table, he can squeeze in a Forbidden Alchemy, probably allowing him to find his fifth land-drop and begin to start reversing the situation. This also allows the Solar Flare player to play around the Morbid trigger on Brimstone Volley.
Now we can see a huge difference in the potential situation of the Solar Flare player. Consider the Solar Flare player who successfully managed to control his impulse to deal with that turn-two Stormblood Berserker immediately. This is not an unreasonable progression for the game to this point:
SF: Draw Glacial Fortress and play it.
MR: Draw Brimstone Volley, proceed with turn.
On the mono-Red player’s turn, the Solar Flare player will play Doom Blade on Stormblood Berserker, provoking the mono-Red player to play Brimstone Volley, which will be countered by Mana Leak. At this point, the Solar Flare player will drop to 14 via a Lavamancer attack but will not be facing any more pressure. Compare this to the situation the Solar Flare player is currently in, where he is effectively at 12, down a Snapcaster Mage, and facing down a Chandra's Phoenix in addition. Let’s get back to the actual game:
Here the Solar Flare player is forced to tap mana main-phase to Think Twice and, not having a fifth land, goes ahead and plays Doom Blade on Grim Lavamancer to get it off the table. This is a premature use of Doom Blade, but at this point, the Solar Flare player is in a huge amount of trouble, and getting a little bit more out of this Doom Blade is not going to mean much. Chandra's Phoenix is possibly the correct target, but a Mountain off the top could be utterly disastrous if the opponent is on Geistflame. All in all, the Doom Blade here is suboptimal, but not egregiously so.
Can’t win them all. This Incinerate was probably going to resolve in any potential Solar Flare line. However, it is nice to note that at this point, the Solar Flare player who played Forbidden Alchemy earlier would be finding his sixth land with the ability to Sun Titan back the O-Ring to kill the Phoenix. His life total would also be a few points higher.
Mono-Red ends up winning this game. So, what can this game tell us? Why is it important to look at games like this and try to see how potential lines of play develop?
This is important because it shows us some basic principles of how the matchup operates. What this game shows us is that Solar Flare needs to worry about two things in the early game:
- Mono-Red’s threats.
- Its own mana development.
The major thing to look at here is the general shape and development of the draw. Because so many of Solar Flare’s answers are in the 2 to 4 range, it is very crucial for Solar Flare to get to 5 and 6 mana so it can start playing an answer while developing forward with Think Twice or Forbidden Alchemy. This draw only goes to show how very different a game can look if Solar Flare is able to develop smoothly instead of tapping down twice on its own turn looking for mana.
The primary mistake that my friend made here and many control mages make overall was not prioritizing his mana development sufficiently. Taking some damage early to increase the smoothness of your mana curve can have great potential rewards. Solar Flare’s draw in this game is a concrete example of how much smooth mana development and good card use can change the complexion of the game. It is very possible that with better card use, Solar Flare would have been able to get the Sun Titan down on time (with an O-Ring to deal with the Phoenix) and thereby force mono-Red to go over the top (for between 10 and 12 points) with burn, which the mono-Red player would not have been capable of doing before Sun Titan managed to finish the job. This likely would have resulted in a win for the Solar Flare player.
The important takeaway here is how important mana development is for the control player. As this draw demonstrates, it is not uncommon to suffer some short-term disadvantage (worse board states or a couple more points of damage) to gain the ability to smooth out your long-term mana development. It is extremely important for control to develop its mana properly in the early game.
The other major important factor is card economy, which I will focus more on next week. Both card economy and mana development use the main advantage control players have—instants. The ability to play their defensive spells at instant speed allows control players to choose when and where they play their defensive spells, allowing them to optimize their overall development. You can always play your defensive spells at sorcery speed in the worst-case scenario, but playing your card-draw in that situation is particularly bad, as it signals to the aggro player that there is blood in the water. In the end, both are important to focus on, and I’ll talk about card economy next week.
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