5 Point Plan – A Beginners MTG Game Walk-Through
This week’s article will be a little different than usual, but I reckon it’ll be a rewarding kind of different. When I started to write this column, my objective was to take as much information as I could and make it easily digestible for new players, so they could advance in the game. After several articles which focussed on theory, I began to think about how I could help new players relate that theory to practice. Then it hit me, in the way that painfully obvious ideas usually do. We learn by playing, right?
Stuart is a friend of mine who, despite having a storied history in gaming as a whole, is only just paddling into the shallows of Magic.
He’s following the same path most of us did: building a collection by inches, creating decks from the cards he has available, playing regularly with another beginner, etc. In this case, his fellow beginner is his son Josh – at 8 years old already a future hall-of-famer, for reasons I’ll disclose later. What follows is the story of a game we played in Stuart’s spare room… and what it teaches us about deckbuilding, gameplay and the speed at which new players can progress.
1. The Decks
The format we chose was Standard, both because it’s widely played and the cards are very accessible.
Stuart has built a deck themed on the mechanic which most appealed to him since he started playing: Evolve. It’s exactly what you would expect from a player who is just starting out and working with a limited cardpool, containing a wide range of cards and effects in small numbers.
Since the purpose of these games was learning, rather than to make Stuart want to stop playing Magic and burn all his cards, I refused to bring a rock-hard tournament deck; what I did want to do, however, was bring a deck that demonstrated some key principles. I sleeved up this Golgari beatdown deck, aiming to showcase the virtues of proactivity, early plays and resilience.
This deck can present a very aggressive nut draw (Experiment One ->Strangleroot Geist -> Dreg Mangler), but transitions nicely into midrange strategy when it can’t close the game early. There are a large number of creatures with inbuilt resistance to removal and the ability to come out on top in combat. It should allow me to have viable lines of play in a number of different situations – just what I want from a teaching tool.
2. The Game
Claiming the first victory of the day with the die roll, Stuart chooses to play first. Here’s the hand he kept:
This is our first learning point of the day: when to mulligan. With three lands, it’s not as if Stuart is starved of mana; however, that Rogue’s Passage looks awkward considering his colour requirements and there isn’t a single spell in his hand that he can cast. I’d have sent this one back. I kept this:
The card we can’t see here is a proxied Overgrown Tomb – I realised at the last minute that I had left the real one in my cube! Ignoring the unfortunate scruffiness of my manabase, this is a hand I’m happy to keep. I have both my colours, two resilient threats I can play straight away and a powerful removal spell; the fact that I have a monster available for the long game is just gravy. Once we get underway, I’m the first to commit to the board with a Strangleroot Geist on turn 2. Dave 20/Stuart 18.
I happily commence my offensive, but the pace of my progress is slowed somewhat when Stuart counters my second angry ghost with a Cancel. Dave 20/Stuart 16.
I really like this play in Stuart’s position. His deck has very little in the way of removal – Aetherize barely counts – and a resilient creature like Strangleroot Geist can cause him all sorts of problems once in play. Curbing my offensive capabilities, even if he is trading a more expensive and flexible counterspell for a two-drop creature, is a high enough priority that it’s worth the trade.
A lesson is contained here for all new control players: don’t let your own greed kill you. If you refuse to make trades like this in the early game because your answers can do more powerful things in the late game… you may never see the late game. One of the reasons Mizzium Mortars is a good spell, for instance, is that it can kill many individual creatures early in the game, or deal with an entire board once you hit 6 mana. If you get too greedy and insist on holding a Mizzium Mortars until you can overload it every single time, you might just die to damage piled on by a Loxodon Smiter you could have killed the turn it hit the board.
Back to the game at hand: Stuart develops his board with a Simic Manipulator, which he (correctly) declines to chump with when I bash in with my Geist. Dave 20/Stuart 14. I leave four mana open and pass the turn, whereupon he viciously slimes me!
At this point, I have options: I can Putrefy the slime in response, to ensure that my offense continues unabated, or slam Yeva. I decide to go for the creature, for several reasons. Firstly, Yeva will provide me with a big body to help close the game quickly should a window open up; secondly, I can simply attack with the Geist until Stuart feels pressured to use the slime as a roadblock; and thirdly, I can always Putrefy the slime out of my way if I draw a black source next turn… I do have another seven of them, after all.
It’s better to be lucky than good, I’m told. As I make this play, I’m aware that it could come back to bite me if Stuart plays some huge monster (to which my lone Putrefy is the only realistic answer)… but at this stage, I believe my best route to victory is to pile damage on as quickly as possible. Dave 20/Stuart 8. Naturally, Stuart instantly punishes me with a Progenitor Mimic, which clones my Yeva.
While this isn’t the worst Mimicry that anyone will be subjected to before the Progenitor rotates – the tokens will be legend ruled, so no army is forthcoming – it still means I’ll likely be losing my own 4/4 to a block in the near future. Oh, look.
Just before this block was made, I was pretty concerned that Stuart would simply steal my Geist, having evolved his Manipulator into mind-control range by playing the mimic. However, he either didn’t see the play, or decided against it in light of my open mana and poker-face. He opted instead to block and set up a trade the following turn.
This sequence of turns was pretty pivotal in the game – and it underlines one of the biggest challenges new players face when they take up Magic. Assessing the merits of different lines of play becomes second nature after one becomes more experienced, but initially there are so many variables that the options can be overwhelming. I liken it to the struggle of a learner driver.
When they first strap on the L plates and climb into the driver’s seat, it’s a struggle simply to master the controls; gears are crunched, corners misjudged and engines stalled as they try to gain comfort with the strange new world of the automobile. A few months down the line, however, they no longer even think about those controls.
Having achieved a level of unconscious competence inside the car, their focus is now outside: lane discipline and route planning become the order of the day. If Stuart had more experience with planning different lines, he would most likely have cloned the Geist with his Mimic.
If he does so, he will still evolve his Manipulator, can then steal my Geist and ultimately put me in a horrible spot: attack with Yeva, when he can block with an undying Mimic which will come back as a 5/5 version of my legendary elf?Or sit tight and eventually be overwhelmed by an army of angry ghosts?
Back, once more, to the game as it happened. Unfortunately for Stuart, I was able to follow up my attack with another play: the Vorapede which we saw in my starting hand. Another resilient creature, this one large and trampling to boot, makes the future look grim for him. However, Stuart’s deck can still find ways to keep me at bay: after deploying a Cloudfin Raptor and a vial of poison, he passes me the turn and confounds my plans with a tempo-stealing Aetherize!
I’m forced to spend my turn replaying the Vorapede. While it’s not a fatal setback, it’s still going to buy Stuart 7 life’s worth of respite, so it’s still a reasonable play. On his own turn, Stuart elects to activate his Rogue’s Passage and send in the Simic Manipulator for two points of damage.
On one hand, I can understand his impulse: he needs to start winning this game at some point, so steps to reduce my life total will have to be taken. Why not this turn? I would argue for more caution. At this point, the life totals stand at Dave 20/Stuart 8; Stuart will not be killing me anytime soon, while I will be attacking with 7 power’s worth of creatures on my next turn. It’s definitely in Stuart’s interest to use his resources to stem the bleeding, rather than to attack me, since his Manipulator can trade with my Geist over two turns.
Of course, this plan will require him to draw something which can shut down my Vorapede next turn, but if he can’t do that the game is lost anyway. Dave 18/Stuart 8. On my turn, I replay the Geist, bring a Dreg Mangler for company, then send my team into the red zone. Dave 18/Stuart 1.
On the following turn, he plays a Talrand and makes a drake with Bioshift – but it’s too late and he can’t stop my lethal swing the following turn, thanks to Vorapede’s trample damage.
There were several decision points which could have changed this game, but at this stage I don’t think there’s anything Stuart could have done to stave off that final point.
3. Stuart’s reflections
We played some more games after this, which panned out in relatively similar fashion: in each case, my creatures managed to batter down Stuart’s defense over a succession of turns while he struggled to get off the back foot. I asked Stuart for his thoughts about both his own deck and the deck I’d brought – what had he picked up from the games?
The importance of early plays
One of the first things Stuart picked up on was my deck’s ability to make an impact early in the game.
“You never seemed to need much mana,” he remarked, “but you were still doing things every turn.” This is a really important learning point. Most new players are attracted to individual, expensive cards which display the greatest power, because it’s easy to imagine them in play, causing havoc.
What’s harder to visualise is a critical mass of cheaper cards which are less powerful in the abstract, but which combine to swarm out a player who can’t deal with them early on. “I’ll definitely be including more early stuff,” Stuart assured me. Strike one for the power of experience!
The value of Creature removal
“You were able to kill my stuff and keep attacking,” Stuart recalled, “whereas I couldn’t do anything to your creatures outside of blocking them.” Another important realisation for new players, especially in the modern era of Magic, is the value of being able to remove opposing Creature threats. Although my deck was removal light, playing only four kill-spells and two Ulvenwald Trackers, I still had outs to large monsters.
Stuart, without these proactive answers, found it extremely difficult to catch up to my early starts. Although Blue/Green isn’t a combination filled with removal options, there are certainly things we can do to mitigate this problem. We’ll touch on this later.
4. My Feedback
Having played against the deck, I had some primary pieces of feedback which I thought would be useful to Stuart. Before I lay them out, I think it’s important to be clear about something.
I will not say ‘build a tournament deck instead’
Anyone can tell a new player to pick up a different deck. Doing so misses what I think is the most important point: building our first deck is a journey of discovery. When a person feels ownership of a project, they are more invested in the details and will commit more completely to it. This is the reason, in my opinion, that the best way for new players to get better at Magic is to polish their own homebrews… until they reach a point that they’re ready to start competing and can consider a range of new decks. For that reason, the things I suggested to Stuart were enhancements to his existing deck and within the reach of his current collection. Now, onto the advice:
Decide on a plan and build around it
Stuart’s deck contains some creatures which want to be played as quickly as possible, then followed up with more early plays, like Cloudfin Raptor; it also contains creatures like Progenitor Mimic, which form part of a longer-term gameplan.
The deck features Elite Arcanist and Talrand, which thrive on instant (and sorcery) spells; but it also features many evolve creatures, which benefit from a concentration of creature spells. Either side of these dichotomies is a fine place to be. The problem is trying to be in both of them.
I advised Stuart to decide whether he wanted to be an aggressive or controlling deck, then cut the cards which didn’t fit with his direction. This same principle could be applied to each strategic decision point with the deck, or any deck: decide what you want to do, then completely commit to it.
Add more mana
Assuming Stuart didn’t want to rebuild wholesale into a streamlined Aggro deck, I advised him to add more land; to cut Rogue’s Passages in favour of coloured mana sources; and to consider some kind of additional acceleration. With a number of plays at the 4, 5 and 6 mana end of the spectrum, his current total of 23 lands is going to lead to a lot of mana-screw and heartache.
Rebalance the curve
Uniquely, I felt like Stuart’s deck had too much going on at both ends of the curve. New players will tend to play too many expensive spells; here, I thought that in addition to that, Stuart had a lot of 1 mana spells which weren’t very impactful. I suggested taking some of the weaker cheap cards out, then shaving the heavy drops a little. With the space created, we’d be able to add some stronger cards in the middle of the curve which would advance Stuart’s gameplan, but still be castable in the early and middle turns of the game.
Roll out the Krasis Incubation!
In a tip very specific to this particular deck, I suggested that Stuart add some copies of Krasis Incubation. It’s a solid removal spell in his colours, which also has the potential to power up his creatures in the later game if he ends up with lots of mana.
5. What did we achieve?
Two weeks later, Stuart is continuing to develop his deck based on the things we learned during this session. He has dropped cards which don’t play into the strategy he’s keen on – a controlling, Evolve-focussed deck – and either added new, supportive cards or increased in number the copies of cards which have been strong for him so far.
He’s also taken out some of the cards which weren’t making an impact for him, instead including effects which let him interact more usefully with his opponents.
He isn’t doing everything I suggested – the land count is still at 23, for instance – but that’s fine, because he’s feeling out the environment for himself. I’d advise every new player to follow their gut and experiment; if we all simply did what we were told, we’d never learn why things worked or didn’t, which is not a recipe for progress. I’ve played against a later iteration of the deck and it’s undoubtedly stronger and more focussed than when we started. I expect to log a few more games after rotation, as Stuart replaces the old with the new and gets to grips with the new format.
Should we play more?
I’m interested to know your thoughts about this kind of article.
- Would you like to see more game breakdowns?
- Do you have a particular deck you’d like to see run through the gauntlet?
- Are you a new player in Central Scotland who’s like to take part in a game like this?
Let me know in the comments thread, or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter. I may take a while, but I’ll get back to everyone who responds.
PS. Josh does the impossible
I did promise, at the start of this article, to back up my prediction that Josh will have a long and successful Magic career. Suffice to say that, after being badgered to play a game while I was battling Stuart, a good friend and long-time player agreed to run out his Commander deck against Josh’s Standard home-brew. If I told you that he game started like this:
…and that our senior player did this kind of thing…
…but that the game ended up like this…
…you’d begin to have a sense of why I think Josh is one for the future. Oh, and you’d also conclude that the Magic gods most certainly have a sense of humour. Until next time, folks…