Scrubland: The Art of War

The first article for this series may have thrown you off a bit. If it did, this one will make a little more sense to you.

Last time, I came to you with a tournament report. You see, Scrubland is not about making you better overnight. There is no miracle cure for being terrible at Magic - as many players have said, it comes with time. You can read all the legendary strategy articles you want to, you can ask yourself into the wee hours of the night, “Who’s The Beatdown?” In the end, though, you’re just going to have to learn by doing your thing in the competitive environment.

I’m not going to give you revolutionary theories. I’m not going to tell you why you’ve been playing aggro all wrong this whole time. I’m going to set down some things I’ve come to accept as truths, that you might keep them in mind and also come to accept them as truths if you haven’t already. These are in no particular order.

You and Your Paradigm

Not that pair o' dime.

If you are playing an aggressive deck, chances are your game will be easier to play than the control deck in front of you. With aggro, you’re doing simple mathematical calculations for the most part. This process is known to us now as setting up your tempo. Your objective is to reduce them to zero as quickly as possible. You do this by whatever means your deck has.

If you are playing a control deck, chances are that your games will take much more toll on your brain than an aggro deck. With control, you’re trying to figure out the best answers to any given problem. A lot of the time, you’re doing very similar calculations as your aggro opponent, only with less information so you have to include all possibilities. Your objective in control is to reduce them to zero on your own terms. You do this by containing your opponent’s deck by whatever means your deck has.

If you are playing a combo deck, your games can vary greatly in complexity of thought. It generally varies on the deck, but combo players do the same kind of simple math as aggro players. Usually this is related to mana in your pool as opposed to your opponent’s life total. Your objective in combo is to cause your opponent to lose as soon as you possibly can. It’s similar to aggro’s objective, yet still subtly different.

Timing Is Everything

No matter what deck you’re playing, no matter what modus operandi you have, timing is everything. Control worries about timing because one wrong step can throw you off for long enough to lose. Combo worries about timing because it wants to ensure success at “going off” (there really needs to be a better word for this that doesn’t have a sexual connotation). Aggro worries about timing for a variety of reasons all relating back to tempo (although sometimes aggro is just worrying about burning through a counter wall for lethal damage).

You have to understand the rules to be able to master timing. If you don’t know the difference between a triggered ability and an activated ability, read up on it. If you don’t know what the heck priority is, or why it matters, you may need to read up on that, too (considering you get it approximately 10 times each turn, minimum). The main thing you need to worry about is priority - when you have it, when your opponent has it, etc. Once you understand priority, many plays open up to you that you may not have seen before - things like playing Lightning Helix on Skeletal Vampire while its triggered ability is on the stack so that it can’t regenerate. Things like playing Bogardan Hellkite in response to your opponent’s attack, killing several of his creatures and blocking the last.

You may already know all the timing rules. You may be more familiar with timing than I am. The fact remains that you have to be a master of time to win.

All War Is Based on Deception

Sun Tzu wrote a fantastic treatise on strategy about 2500 years ago. It is called The Art of War. I suggest you read it. One of his most famous quotes is, “All war is based on deception.” If you are clearly signaling to your opponent that you have absolutely nothing in your hand, you have given him too much information. Did you just draw a land when you needed a Bogardan Hellkite? Pretend you got the Hellkite, then; leave 6RR open, divide your lands so that you have two red split against 6 generic sources. He may not attack if he thinks you have the Hellkite. Did you actually draw the Hellkite? Pretend it’s a Castigate and he has zero cards in his hand; slump in your chair, act like you drew trash. If he buys it, he may make a terrible decision to attack into a Bogardan Hellkite, potentially costing him his entire team.

This is often something the traditional scrub struggles with. A lot of the time, scrubs have set up their own moral guidelines by which they play. Scrubs do not lie to their opponents. That is perhaps the reason they are scrubs. A good liar in Magic can trick his opponent into gambling unnecessarily or freeze him in uncertainty. A bad liar won’t get away with it. Those the only two outcomes for lying in Magic (although they‘re much worse if you lie to a judge - don‘t do that). Learn to bluff.

“You Moved... Like They Do”

I always wanted to do web comics...

As I’ve stated before, you first have to accept there’s a problem before a cure can take effect. If you accept that other players are better than you, go watch the best ones. If you have the good fortune to attend Neutral Ground on a regular basis, do so. You can run into all kinds of good connections up there. In fact, I may move up to NYC just to be able to hang out up there with Mike Flores, BDM, Paul Jordan, Julian Levin, et al. They’re much better than me at Magic, but I have a winning smile.


Odds are good that you can find the best players in your area. They’re usually running the top tables at tournaments. Good Magic players are also often boisterous. It’s not a proven connection, but it’s a coincidence. The point here is that you should know the 1900-2000+ rating guys that play around you, and you should watch them play Magic. Engage them in conversation. They’re better than you for a reason, and it’s not like they’re charging you per minute. Don’t be shy. Shy kids play 70-card mono-Green Elf decks at PTQs. You don’t want to be a shy kid. You want to be the friendly, confident guy walking into the Grand Prix with a two-round bye based on rating.

The More You Know Teach

Read articles online. They are the best source for information from the best minds in the game available for you to read. Anyone from Kazuo in Japan to Hans in Germany can read about velocity from the mouth of Mike Flores himself - even though they can’t travel to Neutral Ground NYC. They can read about pick orders and draft strategies from Rich Hoaen every day. The fact that you can learn so much from online articles is a big reason why decided to start charging for the Premium article content.

Keepin' On Keepin' On

Remember the list I left with last time? I took that list to FNM the next week, and I won a promo Fire/Ice. I consider it ironic that the very next week after I wrote an article about being bad at Magic I would win the first four rounds at FNM, only losing the fifth at the end of the night. I’m not going to cover that week. Sure, I’d love to tell you I conquered my opponents, but in retrospect there was a lot of luck involved and it seemed the stars aligned for that night.

I’ll cover the next week for you instead.

Before I went in for this week, I did some testing of the Boros match-up (the only deck I lost to). I realized that Darkblast was the most efficient way of stopping the deck, not any enchantment. It slows the ground assault enough to reduce the power of the burn. Plus, it can get Firemane into the graveyard with some luck and a skipped draw.

Here’s what my deck looked like:

Blackmane Control v1.2, by Jim!Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Godless Shrine
3 Sacred Foundry
2 Blood Crypt
2 Molten Slagheap
1 Orzhova, the Church of Deals
2 Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace
1 Urza's Factory
3 Flagstones of Trokair

Basic Lands
1 Plains
2 Swamp
2 Mountain

4 Firemane Angel
2 Angel of Despair

4 Phyrexian Arena

2 Orzhov Signet
1 Rakdos Signet
1 Boros Signet

3 Castigate
3 Nightmare Void
4 Wrath of God
3 Demonfire
2 Demonic Collusion

4 Condemn
4 Lightning Helix

I guess I'll just Demonfire you.
In the first round, I was paired up against my best friend Billy. Billy plays Black/White/Green control, so in this match, I have a slight advantage due to Demonfire, which gives me an explosiveness he doesn’t have. In the first game, we both play out slowly, and eventually the game culminates in me returning a Firemane Angel to play, swinging, and bringing him down to zero with a rather large Demonfire.

I took out Lightning Helixes, because they don’t kill anything in his entire list by themselves. Then I brought in all of my Hide/Seeks, because both sides of this split are rather crucial in this match-up.

In game two, nothing happened. A whole lot of nothing happened, in fact. Billy got an active Debtors’ Knell, and started bringing back his Loxodon Hierarchs and my Firemanes. I had a Wrath of God in my hand, but I didn’t cast it until I drew a Hide/Seek. Once I drew the Hide/Seek, I played the Hide side, hid his Knell, then Wrathed the board away. A few turns later, I played a Demonfire for 31 points of damage - and didn’t win! He was at 45 life, and I had another Demonfire, so he had to draw a discard spell or lose - and if he drew the discard spell, I’d draw myself out of a deck the next turn with three active Arenas! The top card of his library was a land, though, so he picked up his cards.

At 1-0, I was paired up with some guy playing a budget version of Boros (with no Chars). The main threat was Sunforger, leading to several odd situations where I had to use Wrath of God on one creature or face certain death.

I sideboarded the way I normally do against Boros, removing the Phyrexian Arenas, the Nightmare Voids and a Demonic Collusion to bring in all of my Darkblasts and Hide/Seeks.

Game two came slowly. I drew very poorly. However, I eventually pulled it out (I believe there was a stretch of time where I was at one life, but he failed to execute properly).

In the third round, my opponent was Ron. He was playing an odd deck he liked to call his own version of Boros Deck Wins - Izzet Deck Wins. He played four Psionic Blasts, four Chars, and four Giant Solifuges, along with a smattering of countermagic and card draw. His objective was to keep me off my game plan while he burns me out.

Coochi coochi coo!

It turns out his deck works fantastically. He beat me in the first game by drawing the lethal Char off of the top. It’s nice when The Plan works, right?

I didn’t bring anything in from the sideboard. There didn’t seem to be anything good I could bring in at the time.

Of course, he smashed me in the second game, too. It wasn’t really even that much of a contest, although at least this time I was able to draw some mana. I killed two Solifuges with one Wrath, but he just burned me out anyway.

2-1 is a respectable record, especially for a scrub like me. I didn’t like swallowing the loss after my stellar performance the week before, but I reminded myself that I’d never done as well as 2-1 before, either.

In the next round, I played some guy I don’t know (sorry, guy!) playing some odd version of Blue/Green control that I haven’t seen before. In the first game, The Plan worked pretty well for me. I also like to think I executed it well. On the fourth turn, I activated Rix Maadi, forcing him to discard a card while I discarded a Firemane of my own. Eventually, I was able to return that Firemane to play, attack a few times, and send in a lethal Demonfire. His notable plays were Teferi and a Mystic Snake or two. There was plenty of countermagic present, as well.

I took out the Condemns, replacing them with Sudden Deaths and a Hide/Seek. I also took out the Collusions for two more Hide/Seeks. Condemn is dead against Teferi, and Sudden Death can’t be countered (plus, it kills Teferi). Hide/Seeks are generally useful against control because of the Seek side, although I expected him to bring in Moratorium Stones and I like to bring back Firemane Angels against heavy countermagic.

The second game was simultaneously the most boring and most silly game of the entire tournament. I won on the back of the Church alone. On turn four, I discarded a Firemane to Rix Maadi again, and she stayed there for about ten turns before he drew a Stone. Orzhova went online on turn six, and never let up the relentless assault. He eventually had two Snakes and Teferi attacking me, but the lifegain I had already achieved made Orzhova a faster clock. Imagine that.

I was now at a very nice 3-1 record, looking to hopefully end the day at 4-1 and go home with some packs. In the last round, I was paired against Sam, a friendly chap from Britain. Sam is playing Boros. It’s tuned to beat control, with Cryoclasm and Blood Moon in his maindeck.

This isn’t the slaughter that it sounds. He didn’t draw very many of these spells. Game one is very close, but he races past the crucial Wrath to get it.

I already covered the sideboarding plan for Boros - I take out all my Nightmare Voids, Arenas, and one Collusion, for all my Darkblasts and Hide/Seeks. Here is where my testing pays off.

In game two, I take the game into the late stages. He lands a Blood Moon, but I float a Red mana and a White mana and Hide the thing before I’m crippled. I then land a Firemane, follow it with an Angel of Despair, and attack for lethal quickly.

In game three, the pressure is on. We are the only remaining match still playing, and it’s for prizes. I want to say right now that this was perhaps one of the best games of Magic I’ve ever played. It’s the kind of game that happens when both players know their decks, they know how to play a good game of Magic, and the game can turn around in one turn. The game went back and forth for a while, with his creatures contained and my deck churning out mediocre draws. Eventually I get enough mana to play an Angel of Despair, which I feel I can ride to victory. It all depends on his draw, as I need my Molten Slagheap to produce two black to be able to play my Angel. He draws a Blood Moon, and as I have no Hide/Seek in my hand, it resolves. The Blood Moon keeps me out of the game just long enough to allow him to get in a couple more points of damage, and he wins the game. Though I lost, I had a lot of fun. It was a genuinely good game.

So I finished the day at 3-2. I would be happy just having a winning record, but the fact that in the last round I was playing for prizes made the week feel much better.

Did you notice the things I learned, or at the least, the things I did well? I’ll give you a few. In the first round, against Billy, I could have just played Wrath of God in fear of his creature supremacy. Doing that would not have allowed me to take him out of the game by getting rid of the Knell first. I did what is called a slow-roll.

Look at the second round. Remember when I was playing Wrath of God for only one creature? I had to. This is the opposite of slow-rolling. I couldn’t just hold the Wrath, hoping to get two creatures for my one Wrath. I had to get rid of the creature above all, even though it threw Wrath’s effectiveness into the trash.

And in the third round, did you see what I did wrong? I didn’t bring in the Hide/Seeks. My plan was clearly inferior to his plan, evidenced by the first game. So, my only option was to let him continue to be better than me? The Hide/Seek plan is better than nothing.

As I keep playing, I’ll notice these mistakes. Hopefully, you will too. Even though you may not play my deck, or even play Standard, you can read my reports and learn from what I’m doing wrong (and what I’m doing right).

This article’s run a bit long already, though. I truly hope you learned something this week, and I’ll see you next week with some more stories of how I’m getting better at Magic. Cheers and good health!


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