5 Point Plan: How To Sharpen Up Your Play in MTG with Dave Shedden

The Crown Duels – Graduating from DOTP to the wider game by Dave Shedden

5 Point Plan: How To Sharpen Up Your Play in MTG (with really pretty diagrams and everything)

Hello again, fledgling Planeswalkers.

Last time, we had a look at five simple ideas you could use to assist your deckbuilding.

Once you’ve built a deck, there’s only one reasonable thing to do: play with it, repeatedly, until someone bursts into the room and tells you that you haven’t slept or been to work for three days and they are staging an intervention.

That being the case, this article is going to focus on the realm of gameplay, with five tips to help you improve your awareness and technical play. Let’s get cracking!

1. Learn the Stack

The Stack is a zone in the game which all spells and effects will pass through before they actually “happen”. Understanding how it works is extremely important if you want to get the timing of your plays right – and in Magic, timing is crucial.

Let’s consider a situation in which the stack is relevant.

Your opponent is attacking with a Kalonian Tusker. You have two Searing Spears in your hand.

Unwilling to take the hit, you cast a Searing Spear targeting the Tusker. The spear goes onto the stack; but before it resolves, burning the Tusker to a cinder, your opponent has a chance to respond.

Tusker vs Spear step 1In this case, she has a response: a Ranger’s Guile, which she casts to save the Tusker from your spear. The Ranger’s Guile goes on the stack, above your spell.

Here’s where the stack becomes very important.

Spells and effects on the stack resolve from top to bottom, which means the most recently played one will resolve first.

If nothing else happens in our example, the Ranger’s Guile will make your opponent’s Tusker into a Hexproof 4/4; then, your spear will try to resolve, but it will be countered because the beast won’t be a legal target.

However, the Ranger’s Guile is still on the stack for the moment, which means that you have a window of opportunity to act.

You respond by casting your second spear on the Tusker. Now, your spell is on the top of the stack (above the Ranger’s Guile and the first Searing Spear) and will resolve first.

Tusker vs Spear step 3Your opponent shrugs her shoulders; she has no more responses and is forced to let the spear resolve. The Tusker dies (cue wild celebrations).

This is a simple example, but it illustrates the importance of knowing the stack. Even experienced players will lose games because they mis-timed an action: do as much as you can to minimise these mistakes in your own game.

2. Learn the Turn Sequence

Another crucial aspect of the game’s timing is the turn sequence.

In Magic, certain actions can only be taken at certain times. Sorceries can only be played during the main phase, for instance, when the stack is clear; many other actions can be taken at instant speed, which means whenever you have priority to act.

Choosing the right stage of the turn to act can be very important.

Time for another scenario!

Seakite block 1

Your opponent is on the attack, but you have a Nephalia Seakite in hand, which has “Flash” and can be played at instant speed. You want to use the Seakite to surprise block one of those Goblin Shortcutters, killing it and gaining card advantage.

You announce your intention to play the Seakite at the beginning of the Declare Blockers step, then triumphantly slam it on the table and attempt to block.

Seakite block 2

Your opponent, looking awkward, informs you that you can’t. The very first thing which happens in the Declare Blockers step is the declaration of blockers… by the time you have priority to cast that Seakite, your chance to block is already gone.

Had you known the turn sequence a little better, you would have played it at the end of your opponent’s declare attackers step… allowing you to have it in play just before you need to present it for blocking.

This is only one example, but believe me: the problems which can arise from misunderstanding the turn sequence are numerous.

A great way to learn the turn properly is through the Magic Online client, which will force you to follow it methodically through each phase until the next turn begins. I heartily recommend it if you’re struggling with this area, even if it seems a pain at first.

3. Second Main Phase

You’re in the early stages of another game against your trusty opponent. Here’s the board:

Minotaur 2nd main step 1

The natural path for many new players is to slam that 2/3 into play as soon as they can. Yee-ha!

That would be a mistake.

Let’s think things through for a moment: are you going to attack this turn? If so, do you want your opponent to block and trade off your 2/2 creatures, or do you want her to let your creature through?

What you do now will affect the way she makes her decisions.

If you play the Minotaur, then attack, your opponent is more likely to block and trade creatures.

She’ll lean that way because, knowing that you have a 2/3 in play, she can see that she won’t have an opportunity to attack back for two damage of her own – your creature will simply kill hers and survive. Instead, it makes more sense to preserve her life total and slow down your assault, giving her more time to draw into a card which answers or trumps your 2/3.

If you don’t play the Minotaur, but still attack, what changes?

Firstly, your opponent doesn’t know for sure that her 2/2 is trumped by a card in your hand. If she believes that she’ll be able to attack back unimpeded for the same amount of damage, she might well choose to let your attack through, on the basis that she’ll be able to race you and stay at near-parity. Of course, when you get to your second main phase and drop your 2/3, she’d rue that decision.

Minotaur 2nd main step 2

Secondly, if you are attacking with open mana, it’s possible that you have a combat trick to play which will make blocking turn out badly for her. This might also lean her toward not blocking.

Put simply, you lose nothing by waiting until your second main phase to play your Minotaur; but by doing so, you deny your opponent information which might help her make better decisions.

As you become more experienced, you’ll develop a sense of when certain plays should be timed, but a good basic rule to follow is this: don’t do anything in your first main phase unless you have a good reason to do so.

A good reason might be that you want to draw cards, so you understand your options for the turn better; or that you have a Haste creature, which will be able to attack this turn if you play it before combat. Just don’t make your oppnent’s life easy, or miss any opportunities to keep them guessing.

4. What could they have?

While it may be tempting to think, as you curve out aggressive creatures on your first three turns and your opponent simply plays lands, that they have nothing and you are absolutely stomping them muhahahahaha… it’s really not the most likely scenario.

Wrath scenario pt1

If your opponent is even halfway competent, they have kept their starting hand – which they could so easily have mulliganed – for a reason. They have considered the idea that you might get ahead in the early turns, but they have also decided that they have a good chance of catching up or overtaking you later.

Why? What might they have in their hand?

Learning to forecast what cards an opponent is holding, based on their decisions and in-game behaviour, is a very important skill in the game of Magic.

Wrath scenario pt2

In the example given above, if I had thrown multiple creatures onto the board and my opponent had simply made lands and passed, I could have reasonably assumed she had a way to negate my creatures en masse… which she did. Her behaviour would have been completely consistent with a plan to simply reach four lands, then cast a Supreme Verdict.

If I had successfully recognised this plan earlier in the game, I would not have played my third creature. Instead, I would have held it to minimise my losses in the event of a Supreme Verdict – and to ensure that I could immediately deploy a new threat afterwards.

The next time your opponent appears not to be doing much, or taking a strange line of play, take a minute to think about what cards in their hand would make that behaviour seem sensible. It’ll open up a whole new world of insight and options to you as a player.

5. Think First

This one is absolutely crucial.

When you start your turn, untap your permanents and draw your card… stop. Don’t do anything.

Stop Light

For many players, this will be a departure from normal procedure, because they’ll be used to snap-playing one of the lands in their hand before casting their first spell for the turn. Unfortunately, some proportion of the time, they’ll immediately realise that they’ve played the wrong land.

Maybe it doesn’t make the right colour to cast the spell they’ve just drawn, or maybe it’s a buddy land that actually comes into play tapped (when they initially thought they’d get to use it for mana this turn).

If only they’d stopped… and thought their whole turn through before they did anything.

Wrong land example

If you play Magic for any period of time, you will inevitably lose games to daft sequencing mistakes.

Perhaps you play a Ponder, stack the cards on top of your deck so you’re getting the cards you want this turn and next,  then play an Evolving Wilds as your land… only to realise that if you activate the wilds, you’re going to shuffle away that second card you want so badly. If only you’d played a different land, or played and cracked the wilds first, you’d have been able to resolve a more meaningful Ponder without setting back your development by several turns.

Perhaps, following the earlier rule about waiting until your second main phase too slavishly, you launch an attack in which your only creature is traded off against the opponent’s… then you cast a card draw spell in your main phase which brings you a Giant Growth. If you’d drawn the cards before attacking, you’d have been able to save your creature; now, with no creatures in hand or in play, that Giant Growth might as well be a blank card.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Stop at the start of the turn. Think it all through.

  • What do I want to do this turn?
  • How much mana will I need to play out this turn?
  • Is there anything I could draw which might change my plan?
  • Is there anything my opponent could have which would foil my plan?
  • Is there a better plan staring me in the face?

This doesn’t cover every possible thing you should think about – books could be written on this subject – but it encapsulates the spirit of what you should be aiming for. Don’t rush and make a mistake; calmly think through what you’re about to do and why you’re about to do it. Once you’re sure it’s the right set of plays, in the right order, go ahead and execute your plan.

If you can master this, make it your ingrained habit, you will be a substantially better player as a result.

That’s a wrap

By my reckoning – and this assumes I can successfully count to five – we’ve reached the end of today’s class.

These tips should help you on the road to improving your play, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of the game. Think of them as the bonus stickers you got free with the Panini albums of your youth: they’re a nice starter, but now it’s up to you to fill all the other pages.

small thumbs up

Get out there. Play the game. Love every minute of it… and when you have a chance to ask an older hand some advice, don’t be afraid to do so.

Good luck, my future Pro Tour Champions!



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