The Devil is in the Details – Knowing What Questions to Ask

At its core, Magic: the Gathering has a simplistic premise; Build a deck with a minimum of 60 cards and take your opponent’s life total from 20 to 0. Sounds simple enough right? However, there are many more intricacies that can be found within the game. Over the course of this article I will be going over some of the more difficult decision making processes that a Magic player is faced with. The correct deck choice for a tournament, meta-game knowledge, when to mulligan, and tracking your opponent’s possible plays/thought process.

I have been playing this game for almost 20 years but competitively for only about 10. I try to find a balance between having a good time and winning but it doesn’t always happen. Like many MTG players, I have taken a break from time to time in order to rediscover my love for the game, wait out a period of bad beats, or just regroup before a new set is coming out. Through these trials, tribulations, and periods of reflection I have been able to develop a set of skills that have tightened my game and made me a better player. My goal is to pass some of the knowledge I have learned onto you in an effort to assist in the raising of your own achievements.

Which deck should I play? What is everyone else playing? These are most likely the first 2 questions you should ask yourself when deciding to play in a tournament, whether it is an FNM, a PTQ, a Grand Prix or just a casual Standard tournament. Your deck choice has a great impact on how your tournament experience will turn out. You want to play a deck that you will have fun with for the entire tournament. You want to play a deck that is competitive and is good versus the expected field. When choosing a deck I usually take a look at some of the most recent tournament results to see if there is anything that catches my eye. After I have done that, I brainstorm if there is any particular card that I would like to play with that I haven’t gotten a chance to yet. Once I have a blueprint for what I want to play I need to determine what the rest of the field will look like.

Determining the rest of the field is a little simpler. By looking at some of the most recent tournament results I am able to see what decks are most likely to be played. I play FNM at Amazing Discoveries in Tucson and the crowd is fairly competitive. You can expect about 75% of the field to be the top 4-5 decks. There are always a few rogue decks running around but the majority is comprised of tier 1 decks. Therefore you will want to build your deck to be able to compete with those top decks. Having answers in your maindeck and sideboard to handle their main threats and/or strategies is key. Is there a certain card you are not able to beat? Is there a particular strategy that you are weak against? If so you should have a tough matchup or plan a strategy to help yourself compete against them.

The mulligan is one of the best and worst things to happen to Magic tournament play. It’s one of the best since it allows you to throw back a particularly bad or unplayable hand. No lands? Throw it back. No spells? Throw it back. However, the mulligan is one of the worst things to happen when it comes to adding a level of complexity that not every player can grasp. It’s easy to mulligan a no land or 1 land hand. It’s also easy to mulligan a 6 land hand. But what happens when you have a hand of 4 lands, a 2 drop, a 4 drop, and a 7 drop? Do you know the odds of drawing more spells at your 3 drop slot? What about the odds of drawing more lands in the first 4 draws? Is it game 1? If so can you keep your hand against an unknown deck. If it’s game 2 or 3, is your hand going to get you there against your opponent’s deck? Are there any sideboard cards in your hand? This is where the pitfalls of the mulligan come into play.

When deciding whether or not to mulligan I consider my opponent’s deck, whether I am on the play or the draw, and how the cards in my hand will interact and coexist as the early turns play out. I generally will not keep a hand with less than 2 lands and at least 2 1-3 drops. I want to be casting spells early in the game and I do not want to be relying on the luck of the draw to stay ahead or win the game. There will always be instances of variance where you have no control of a bad draw. Variance is part of the game. Magic is a game of many variables and knowing when/how to mulligan is one of the ways a player can eliminate some of the variables. A bad mulligan choice can cost you a game before it even begins and a good choice can place you in a dominant position to win the game.

The final element of difficult decision making processes a Magic player might face that I would like to cover is knowing your opponent’s possible plays and how their thought process works. Knowing what spells your opponent could draw to get them out of kill range or make it impossible for you to win. Why didn’t they attack? What are they holding in their hand? What are they hoping to draw? What saves them from dying this turn? What card do I auto-lose to? All of these are questions you should be asking yourself throughout the course of a match. By analyzing your opponent’s possible choices you can gain pertinent knowledge on how the match will play out. If your opponent is leaving creatures back do you need to ask yourself why? Are they simply chump blockers? Are they a deterrent to an attack? Do they have a combat trick? Are they on the ropes and about to lose and are simply trying to buy a turn to find an out? Determining the reasons for their play gives you insight on whether you should alpha strike, hold back, or just send in the damage you know will get through. What outs does your opponent have? Can they draw anything that will keep them in the game or turn the game into their favor? Knowing your opponent’s deck, how they play, and how they think can give incredible insight into how the match will play out.

The correct deck choice, knowing your meta-game, when to mulligan, and how your opponents play are just the beginning of the intricacies a MTG player is faced with during every tournament. Hopefully some of the knowledge I have shared with you and the questions raised will assist you in becoming a better tuned player. By becoming a better player I hope you will experience more enjoyment playing MTG. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about, having a great time playing. I’ll be back next week talking about the Avacyn Restored Helvault prerelease at Amazing Discoveries (2410 E Broadway) in Tucson. If you are in attendance come by and say hi. I like meeting readers and discussing Magic.

If you have any questions or comments please post below. If you like the article then please click the like button. You can also email me [email protected] or follow me on twitter @fallfromhell. Thanks for reading.

Jeffrey McCoy