Tricky Situations and How to Find Them


A game of Magic equals a series of decisions, but not all of them are obvious. While playing you will come across situations you have experienced often and you might find a solution that differs from instinct. Join Jamin on his way through some hidden decisions in Magic and how to approach them.

Magic is a game about decisions. Every game differs, depending on which lines of play an opponent takes. Over time, many of these decision become trivial since you will have developed many shortcuts: playing a land during your turn, playing cards to fit your curve and using your Sinister Sabotage to counter Vivien Reid are things you learn early and get reinforced all the time when playing competitive Magic.

Sinister Sabotage Vivien Reid

Today though, I want to take a look at when to break these rules, because sometimes you fall into the trap of “playing on auto-pilot” and when you do, you miss valuable decision points.

Let’s take a look at a very recent example in which the auto-pilot can impact your win-percentage: let’s say you’re playing in a Guilds of Ravnica draft and the game dragged out with both you and your opponent on very few cards in hand. Now you’re left with one land in hand as your last card. Should you play said land? As in most cases in this article, the answer is: “it depends”. When I’m on auto-pilot I will do one or the other instantly and probably regret it afterwards. There are reasons for both since Dimir has access to Disinformation Campaign, so you might want to keep the land (if there are cards you would like to keep in hand later on), but you might also want to play it out depending on how much you need the mana.

Step One – Finding the Decision Points

Experimental Frenzy

While you might ideally overthink every micro decision to the fullest, that’s not really practical for an actual 50 minute match of Magic. What’s much more important is to identify at which point you need to step back and take a closer look. I find that I get too hasty with my decisions when the game nears its end or when I’m very far ahead. Another factor that often leads to wrong choices are strong assumptions that change during a game, just to give you examples: “My life total doesn’t matter this game,” “I have Experimental Frenzy so I should empty my hand,” “I can’t beat card X”, “1 damage doesn’t matter here”. While these statements are often true, every game of Magic is unique and you will often find spots where you need to readjust these to fit your current game.

Identify the times you’re making decisions too fast and lean back in the chair to take another look. If you have no clue where possible mistakes might occur, record yourself playing (if you’re playing digital Magic) or have someone peek over your shoulder from time to time and ask about plays they disagree with.

Step Two – Finding the Correct Line

Fortuitous Find

This is where it gets kinda complicated. If I had a way for you to figure out every single situation perfectly, Magic would be a lot less interesting of a game. What I can offer you instead are some helpful ideas that helped me approach these situations.

Normally I approach decisions in Magic on a broader level. Making plays based on broader concepts like curve, tempo and value, which works well when there is a plethora of cards my opponent might have. When the game is closer to finishing though, the amount of cards your opponent might hold goes down significantly which gives you an opportunity: simply envision the situations you would end up if they have certain cards and make your play based on these. This helps preventing tunnel visioning on a certain gameplan and is probably the closest you can get to objective decision making.

Secondly you can simply put yourself into your opponent’s spot. Imagine where they’re at and what they would like you to do this turn. Simply do the opposite. Some dynamics in a matchup are only clearly visible from one side and much less from the other.

Finally you also have the option of asking friends about their opinion on certain decisions. And once again I cannot understate how much this can boost your results. Learning from better players is a feat of nearly all hobbies.

While practicing all this, keep in mind that you will often come to the same conclusion that you would’ve played if you played on auto-pilot and that’s okay. The improvement comes from the 15% that you avoided a mistake.

In Practice

I want to provide you with some examples to better the understanding of what I mean, starting with a common situation against Jeskai in current Standard.

Turn Three Against Jeskai


It's their turn three and they passed after playing a land. You untap and can either play a threat or pass. This seems like a trivial choice at first since using your mana is almost always good. In this case it depends a lot on the texture of the game and matchup.

With my recent Dinosaur deck I learned that when my hand was light on threats and if I had Carnage Tyrant in hand, it was often better to pass, casting said threat next turn when they have four mana open and would rather spend it on Chemister’s Insight. If, however, I had no Carnage Tyrant or wasn’t running out of threats, I always slammed the threat since there’s a very real chance they don’t even have Ionize or Sinister Sabotage.

Not giving them the opening to be mana efficient will sometimes shape their mana too awkward and make them stumble and I only realized this after thinking about how I lost games against Jeskai. Initially I overshot a bit and rarely played anything into their mana on turn three until a friend told me to stop since mana efficiency doesn’t matter as long as you spend all your mana every turn.

Attacking with Mana Dorks

Druid of the Cowl

My history with attacking Druid of the Cowls is not great. At first I would often try to sneak through damage but soon I learned that players will Seal Away your Elf which will often be a big setback to your gameplan. Even worse was when someone flashed in a Dire Fleet Poisoner and ate my 1/3 for free. This was when I realized I needed to change something. From there on, every time I attacked with my mana dork I applied the “card-by-card” procedure of thinking of every single card that might reasonably punish me for attacking to see if the one damage was really free.

While doing this I also learned to “chump attack” with mana dorks to force through damage earlier than one might think. During the midgame, your opponent might not have enough blockers to block all creatures so your opponent can either take one damage and trade with your bigger creatures or they can eat your Llanowar Elves and take five. This still gives the mana dorks some value before they become completely useless.

There are so many decisions to make in Magic and it’s important to realize just how many there are. So, the next time you find yourself on auto-pilot, take a step back and make sure you’re drawing the right conclusions from the game state.

I hope this article helped you get better at Magic and if you have any insightful plays you want to share, leave them in the comments!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

1 Comment

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buchmand(20.12.2018 08:09)

You make some very good points in this post, thanks! After playing a match, you have one person that closely watched what you did: your oponent. In my community, we often have a quick chat after the match to exchange on observed risky actions and misplays. I learn a lot from that.