Leveling Up: Imagining Winning Board States
There are many ways to win a game of Magic: The Gathering. For some decks, it's slinging Lightning Bolt at their opponents' faces until their life total is zero; for others, it might be turning big Tarmogoyfs and Death's Shadows sideways and getting into the red zone. Whether we're milling our opponents' libraries or getting there on the back of Celestial Colonnade beats, decks are built to win, and players in a competitive match of Magic try to make the decisions that maximize their win percentages.
It's important to remember that a typical game of Magic contains myriads of decision points that ask the player to take a line of play and eschew another. Furthermore, these decision points may begin as early as the first turn of the game (or even sooner!), which then go on to influence the rest of the game. The act of making a play not only snowballs in regards to the scale of the outcome (from "Does playing this land let me cast my spells on time?" to "Does making this play cost me the game?"), but it also snowballs in number: we might oftentimes feel overwhelmed at the number of decisions we end up having to make in a game. It's not all too uncommon for players at a certain point in the game to make a play not because they thought it was the correct play but because it was a play they could make.
Making the Right Plays in the Grand Scheme
If I want to get from my home to the nearest movie theater, I quite literally know what my goal is in that scenario: the movie theater! I would probably use Google to help me locate the nearest cinema, look at the route I would need to take - whether that be using public transportation, walking, or both – and be on my merry way. During the course of my trip, I'm not asking myself whether I should be going down a side street or taking a different underground line because I already have a picture in my head of the route I need to take to get to my destination. Because I know where I'm going, I don't need to consider these decisions to get to the movie theater. Oddly enough, this applies surprisingly well to winning a game of Magic, as well. The destination, however, in a game of Magic is a bit different from a movie theater – rather, we're looking for ways to arrive at a winning board state.
What's A Winning Board State?
Every deck has a game plan and following the game plan is crucial to winning. Modern Burn's game plan is to cast enough Lightning Bolt-like cards and deal damage through its aggressive creatures. Standard Esper Control's strategy is to rely on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria as a source of card advantage and win-condition and to ensure that he can win, they build the rest of the deck to control the board for long enough to let him take over. Knowing what the deck's strategy is, though, is different than knowing what a winning board state looks like for a deck. If I were to define a winning board state, it is the board state that the deck needs to find itself in to win against a particular deck. For example, what does a winning board state look like for Standard Sultai Midrange playing against Esper Control? In most cases, the board will have one or two creatures on Sultai's side that apply pressure on the Esper player's life total but don't overextend into a board wipe. The endgame might feature a lone Carnage Tyrant that is able to dodge Kaya's Wrath that was cast earlier, or it might be also be won by a Vivien Reid that was able to sneak under a counterspell when the Esper player had to tap out to deal with the board. In very few cases does the winning board state feature Wildgrowth Walkers, Hostage Takers, or an army of Llanowar Elves, and Find//Finality rarely play into building one, either. Looking at Standard again, a winning board state for Azorius Aggro against Esper Control will never come down to whether the Weenie player was able to play a free Venerated Loxodon – in fact, a Venerated Loxodon probably means that the White Weenie player has lost because he or she had to take a turn off of dealing damage to pump the team, a turn which might have given the Esper player enough time to stabilize with a board wipe.
Once we key in on what the winning board state(s) look like, our decision-making process becomes much easier. Trading in combat, protecting our life totals, and countering spells or removing creatures can be done in the context of, "Does this decision build towards the winning board state?" Instead of blindly casting a Vraska's Contempt because we have the mana for it, we can ask ourselves if casting the Vraska's Contempt helps create the board state we need to win. If my Mono-Red Aggro opponent passes the turn by playing his or her first land, should I play my Llanowar Elves into the open mana? Probably not because we'll most likely want that Llanowar Elves to hang around and ramp us into our bigger spells, and letting the opponent spend mana on our turn so that they can clear the way for their creatures doesn't lead to a winning board state.
In short, every deck has a winning board state, and when trying to improve with a deck, it's tantamount that the player identifies what that looks like in the matchup.
A final example:
I'm down a game against Sultai Midrange, and I'm on Bant Vannifar. A winning board state for me is one in which I ramp and swarm the board with creatures. I need a way to protect the creatures against a Finality or Ritual of Soot, or I need creatures that are resilient to them. The decisions I made the rest of the game worked towards building towards that board state, and several turns later, I'm able to grab the win.
The Pitfalls of Tunnel Vision
Having said all of that, it's important to remember that a deck usually has many winning board states (unless the matchup is a terrible one). To quote another article from one of our writers here at CardMarket, "Your opponent has a plan," and they'll do their best to build a winning board state while trying to derail your plan. If it seems like the opponent has identified what you're trying to do and walking you towards a scenario that ends poorly for you, it's important to reassess what a new winning board state needs to look like.
Anyway, that's all for this week – thanks for reading, leave me your comments in the comment section below, and I'll see you next time.
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