Taking Big Risks

I stand before you today a broken man. No, that's a lie because I can't even stand. I'm lying in a smoking heap, destroyed by repeated beatings. Perhaps you are in a similar position yourself and you have crawled here with the last of your strength, desperate for knowledge. Just clues would suffice, or maybe even cryptic remarks. Even a Zen koan might help. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it would be the blind leading the blind and so I must refuse.

The format is Ravnica-Ravnica-Guildpact draft, or "RRG" to its friends. Now I wouldn't want to give you the wrong impression here. It's a huge amount of fun, but it's hard. Not since Onslaught block have I come out of so many drafts with decks worthy of being called unplayable. The art of signalling has become a strange and complex beast - it's not that I don't understand it, just that the fools sitting to my right don't understand it! And I don't know what to pick when anymore. I draft decks full of castable but underpowered stuff or powerful stuff in four different colors or a deck with a mana curve starting at four plus half a dozen Signets.

Believe me when I say I'm doing you a favor not giving you draft tips right now.

Instead I'm going to talk about Bridge. Only joking. Rather, I'm going to talk about a strategy I first encountered playing Bridge. One of the good things about playing lots of different games is that one frequently sees strategic ideas in one game which have parallels in other games. Chess for example has a concept of tempo, as does Magic. And indeed there are a few concepts which appear in many, many games or even come close to being universal. Let me provide an example: One particular Bridge tournament a long time ago, my girlfriend and I decided we were going to be really lucky and win the tournament. Which we did.

What may surprise you about this is that there was a valid and very interesting strategy involved. What we had noticed was that despite the fact we were competent players, the room was full of pairs who were better than us. Some of them were much better. Now Bridge is a game with an awful lot of skill in it, so if we simply tried to outplay them all our chances were fairly slim. What we did instead was to play a very slightly different game. (For the Bridge players amongst you: When complicated auctions occurred, we assumed slam contracts were not available. When involved in borderline game-level contracts, we assumed the contract was good and bid it even if we seemed a bit light. To a Rubber Bridge player this might seem crazy, but this was Match Point Duplicate, which means for each hand your score is a percentage corresponding to the proportion of the field you beat.) In layman's terms, we made a set of extremely risky assumptions about the way the hands would play out which put us in a very strong position if they were correct.

On the day, the dangerous assumptions we made proved valid, so we came out on top. I don't expect anyone except me cares much about that. The interesting question is: What is the general form of this strategy? The aim is to take a risk with only a small chance of paying off. If it pays off, it gives you a big advantage. If it doesn't, you lose. One wants to make this kind of play when the overall probability of victory if you play the game straight is even smaller than the probability of the risk paying off.

With many players unsatisfied with mere wins,
the DCI are currently testing possible
So how does this apply to Magic? For a long time I thought it didn't. Because the result of a Magic game is always simply win, draw or lose there seems to be no "big advantage" available equivalent to a 'top' in Duplicate Bridge. Any given risk either is or isn't the best play available and existing Magic theory and experience will tell you whether to take a given risk.

I was wrong. This article is about why I was wrong and how to employ the strategy when playing Magic. In the context of Bridge I first heard of the technique under the name "steaming". I have since discovered that this comes from the world of Blackjack and has negative connotations, being analogous to being "on tilt" when playing Poker. Never mind - it's not the label that matters. Yet more proof that Magic strategy has little in common with designer clothing, Champagne and ejector seats in batmobiles.

So - back to RRG draft. With my rating taking a severe beating from my flaky ability to draft decent decks, it became very important to get results when I did end up with a good 45 cards. One of the archetypes I most commonly shoot for is RGw aggro. There are various technical reasons for this, such as the fact that it's one of only two archetypes which spans three guilds. However, the other big advantage for me personally is that it's the only archetype where I feel comfortable with my understanding of the details.

I'm not going to walk you through a draft. Today's light entertainment will consist of walking you through the games in one particular draft. I'll explain why in a minute, but first here's the deck:

RGw Beatdown DraftMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures (17)
1 Elves of Deep Shadow
1 War-Torch Goblin
1 Silhana Ledgewalker
1 Transluminant
1 Scab-Clan Mauler
1 Goblin Spelunkers
1 Trophy Hunter
2 Civic Wayfinder
1 Burning-Tree Shaman
1 Burning-Tree Bloodscale
1 Nullmage Shepherd
1 Dowsing Shaman
2 Streetbreaker Wurm
1 Siege Wurm
1 Skarrgan Skybreaker

Spells (7)
1 Gather Courage
1 Selesnya Signet
1 Farseek
1 Galvanic Arc
1 Moldervine Cloak
1 Gaze of the Gorgon
1 Predatory Focus

Land (16)
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
1 Gruul Turf
6 Forest
6 Mountain
2 Plains

I've given quite a lot of sideboard so you effectively have the whole cardpool I was working with. As you can see, my policy of first-picking Civic Wayfinder has both pros and cons. On the plus side it means I have two of them, which is strong. On the minus side it means I'm rather lacking in other areas.

Now this deck is pretty good in my estimation - if nothing else I lucksacked a first pick Burning-Tree Shaman from the Guildpacks (haha - see what I did there?). It's also a bit unreliable due to a total absence of flyers and almost no removal.

I selected this particular draft because it demonstrates a number of points quite well. That said, I should give you fair warning: it features some shockingly bad play, not all of it mine. For this reason I have changed the names of my opponents. If you were one of them, feel free to own up in the forums! Oh, and another quick warning - it always annoys me how game records never have enough detail for you to reconstruct the board for yourself. Well, I'm not putting up with that. So you get everything in excruciating detail. Does anyone else remember the episode of Red Dwarf with Rimmer's Risk stories in it? Feel free to skim read the dull bits. Or you could poke your eyes out with sharp things when it all gets too much. Whichever you prefer, really.

If you're a Magic Online player yourself, you can actually watch the game replays yourself. Instructions within the spoiler tag...

1) Download this zip file: draft_matches.zip.
2) Unzip it to extract the file mygames.yourusernamehere.dat to your hard drive.
3) Rename the file you downloaded, replacing "yourusernamehere" with your Magic Online username.
4) Launch Magic Online.
5) Copy the file you renamed into your Magic Online directory. There will probably already be a file of that name, which you should overwrite.

Now if you click the "My Games" icon from the main menu of Magic Online you will see all the matches I list below. You will also see the usernames of my opponents. Ah well, can't be helped!

Match 1 vs Sweet Dan

Game 1: I win the die roll and opt to play.

An initial hand of Mountain, Plains, Gruul Turf, Scab-Clan Mauler, Goblin Spelunkers, Gaze of the Gorgon, Dowsing Shaman was a definite keeper due to a tasty mix of decent mana, castable creatures and garlic croutons.

Turn 1: I led off with Mountain. He played Swamp.
Turn 2: I drew Civic Wayfinder. I couldn't play anything now, so it was an ideal bounceland opportunity. He played Plains, Golgari Thug.
Turn 3: I drew War Torch Goblin and played Civic Wayfinder for a second Forest. He played Mountain, Skyknight Legionnaire and hit for 2. Who's the beatdown in this matchup? Good question, but let's hope that despite appearances I am not the control deck since I only have one control spell in my entire pile.
Turn 4: I topdecked Galvanic Arc - maybe I am the control player after all - then played Spelunkers plus War-Torch. He missed his land drop, used Pillory of the Sleepless on my Spelunkers but did not attack with the Legionnaire. I struggled to work out why not, checked his rating and concluded it was possible he actually might be that stupid. (See? I couldn't write that if I hadn't anonymized the names first!)

Turn 5: I used Arc to kill his Skyknight, then attacked with Wayfinder and he blocked, returning Skyknight. Meant I couldn't cast Mauler, but not surprising. A quick pause here. I'm going to ask a question and I want you to answer it instantly (to yourself, not in the forums). Don't stop to do complex calculations, it's your intuition that matters. Here goes: Would I have done better to use Arc to kill the Thug? I freely admit I gave the matter no thought at the time. And this is much of the value of a walkthrough like this - the little decisions we give no thought to that can lose us games. Here's another option: should I have held the Arc in my hand and just attacked with the Wayfinder? I gave that even less thought at the time (and less than none is not much at all). Is that good? I won't dwell on this particular interaction for too long, but I hope you can see it's not actually as trivial as it might at first seem. He recast the Skyknight and attacked for 2.

Turn 6: I drew a very welcome land which meant after my attack I could cast both Mauler and Bloodscale. He finally drew a 4th land and played Boros Swiftblade and Cyclopean Snare and didn't attack. Snare is, to say the least, not normally considered playable. By this point I rather fancied my chances in this match. Hmm... I think I may add "buffoon" to my opponent's list of credentials.
Turn 7: I drew a Mountain, which I played without thinking about it enough. Using Gaze was on my mind, but I should have realised I couldn't possibly need it. I then attacked, forcing Skyknight to block Bloodscale. He blocked with Swiftblade as well, so I sacced my Goblin to kill it. His Shrieking Grotesque took out my Dowsing Shaman instead of the Mountain which should still have been in my hand. Oops.
Turn 8: I topdecked Streetbreaker Wurm. Game to me.

I won't waste time analyzing that game... at least not yet.

I sided in Crash Landing to replace Dowsing Shaman since I don't much like Skyknights.

Game 2: Dan opted to play.

My starting hand was: Mountain, Mountain, Forest, Plains, Burning Tree Shaman, Skybreaker, Gaze of the Gorgon. Somewhat borderline, but in the end I kept because turn three Shaman is a strong play and against a weak opponent avoiding manascrew is important.

Turn 1: He opened with Swamp. I drew Predatory Focus and played Forest. Focus was unwelcome here since it's mostly good after an aggro start, which I didn't have.
Turn 2: He played Mountain, Mourning Thrull. I was not happy. I drew Forest - even less happy - and played Mountain.
Turn 3: I was lucky - he had no turn three play besides another Swamp. I drew Galvanic Arc and played my Shaman.
Turn 4: He played Plains, Blind Hunter. Ouch. Fortunately I topdecked Streetbreaker Wurm. Now my long game was looking better. I Arced the Hunter and I was pleased when he Haunted the Shaman (Thrull would surely have been better). Incidentally, does anyone else think it's bad flavor that actually being Haunted doesn't do anything? A fearsome monster like Exhumer Thrull could Haunt a Little Girl and she wouldn't be affected in the slightest. (Possibly a bad example, she was unhinged in the first place. Ho ho.)
Turn 5: He had Grifter's Blade for his Thrull. This was going to make it really hard for me to race. I started doing sums in my head, but too much depended on what he played in the next few turns. I drew Ledgewalker, which was not useful here. Streetbreaker Wurm came down.
Turn 6: He played a Nightguard Patrol which was most likely just going to chump block later. I drew Vitu-Ghazi. I was on 12 life by now, but only one mana from casting Skybreaker. He took the 9 damage and I played out Ledgewalker, one mana short of being able to make a Saproling as well.
Turn 7: After his attack he played a Boros Swiftblade, hurt himself for a point moving the Grifter's Blade to Nightguard Patrol then finished with a Boros Signet. I topdecked a Mountain, which was both good and bad. I was briefly tempted to attack with everything then use Gaze, but it could actually lose me the game if he didn't block, so I resisted temptation. I played the Skybreaker. With 16 power on the board, Predatory Focus should give me the game next turn.
Turn 8: He attacked with Thrull and did nothing else. I topdecked a Forest (which I foolishly played without checking if I needed it), played Focus and swung... or not. Master Warcraft from Dan in response to Focus left me blinking in astonishment at my monitor. That's... bad. He made me attack with absolutely nothing whatsoever. For zero.
Turn 9: He played out an Ostiary Thrull to turn my situation from unpleasant to really-actually-quite-serious. That's a technical term by the way. When he attacked with the Mourning Thrull again I decided I had no choice but to cut my losses. I fired the Skybreaker at it. Result: one very dead Thrull. Obviously on my turn I topdecked the Crash Landing I'd sided in. I attacked with only Ledgewalker since I needed two blockers up.
Turn 10: He Pilloried my Shaman. That was pretty much game.

Scientists attempting to work
out why Cyclopean Snare was
bad tried splicing in better
artwork. Nope, still bad.
Uh oh. So after laughing to myself at both my opponent's 133t playing skills and card choices we're now at 1-1. Now here's the interesting thing - a lot of the minor errors and moments of thoughtlessness in game one didn't seem important at the time, but would I still have won if that Snare had been Master Warcraft instead and he hadn't missed a land drop? That turn 5 play with the Arc might have been critical - was there any way I could have had a thirsted Mauler that turn? That might have made the difference without which I'd have been facing a match loss. Losing a match to Dan would mean a lot of rating lost. After a good draft that would be a very unhappy ending indeed. That kind of thing can make a chap sulk all week.

Speaking of which, last time I checked 1-1 was not a match win. Sulking was still very much a possibility.

Game 3: At least I'm playing first again.

If I was nervous about this game a second before, that was nothing to how I felt when I saw: Mountain, Mountain, War-Torch Goblin, Gather Courage, Crash Landing, Burning-Tree Shaman, Gaze of the Gorgon. A truly nasty decision. What would you do? In this case I didn't think about it for long. Although this hand must draw a Forest soon to be any good, that's the best possible card to be missing. Also, despite the lack of Forests I'm very happy to see Crash Landing there. My opponent's deck is not fast, so I should have time to draw into what I need. At least that's what I tried to tell myself.

Turn 1: Mountain, War-Torch. He replied with Mountain, War-Torch. In some ways this was good for me. I wasn't really planning to do much blocking anyway and I knew his deck would have trouble sustaining any kind of tempo.
Turn 2: I drew Skybreaker. Pure comedy. I decided to attack with the Goblin since I'd be quite happy to trade. Sadly he let it through. It occurred to me belatedly that maybe I shouldn't have played my second Mountain before attacking since it gave away that I wasn't after Bloodthirst. He played Plains, Courier Hawk. Again I was quite happy, because it was another weak creature.
Turn 3: I topdecked the Forest I needed like a pro. When I played out Shaman my opponent remarked "gah". If only he knew about the Forest! He played Orzhov Signet then Golgari Thug. Still no real threats. Now I was glad I still had my Goblin, since it made Thug somewhat worse.
Turn 4: I drew and cast Transluminant before combat, which played nicely into my preferred approach of attacking mercilessly. Technically I was telegraphing my Gather Courage here, but I didn't really care. And besides, my opponent might miss it. I attacked only with Shaman since I wasn't sure I still wanted the Goblin-Goblin trade. He just let it through. He played a Keening Banshee after attacking only with the Hawk and targeted my Goblin. After some thought I used the Gather Courage to save it.
Turn 5: I topdecked a Plains and suddenly my mediocre position was quite strong. The big question was how aggressive to be. I decided to attack with all three creatures on the basis that with no more threats to cast I'd really quite like to use my mana in combat (and I was betting he'd have let Shaman through on its own). In the end he only blocked Goblin on Goblin, but that was OK since at least I had my 5 damage, leaving him on 11 life to my 17. He cast Hypervolt Grasp on his Courier Hawk and attacked only with that. Normally this would show a combat trick of some kind, but I suspected that he was just being overdefensive.
Turn 6: I drew Civic Wayfinder, but with Gaze still in hand I felt I could afford to be aggressive. I attacked with the Shaman and he blocked with both Thug and Banshee. He'd obviously got some Banshee recursion in mind, but I had other ideas... I allocated all damage to the Thug which forced its ability to target itself. After combat, he of course pinged to finish off my Shaman. When I then responded with Gaze, the Banshee died. Remember: always read the card! When my opponent replayed Thug on his turn I couldn't help wondering whether he had a choice.
Turn 7: I drew Streetbreaker Wurm and I was more than happy to play into what appeared to be his plan. I attacked with both, taking him to 8, then cast Wayfinder. He made the mistake of pinging me with the Hawk, then followed up by recasting Banshee to kill Wayfinder. I didn't care of course - I had all the tempo in the world by this point.
Turn 8: I attacked with only Shaman since I planned to use all my mana and didn't want to miss out on my Transluminant token. This was probably wrong, it was good enough for me if he blocked the Transluminant that I could afford the waste. I was expecting to trade the Shaman for the Hawk but he declined the double block so I knocked him to 4. I cast the Wurm and he had no play on his turn, so that was game.

OK, those of you who hid behind the sofa when Cyclopean Snare got mentioned can come out now. I survived the match, but did I deserve to? It's noticeable that whenever I felt I was winning my play became worse. Why was this? Pondering this afterwards, I reached the conclusion that it's because of a tendency to think about typical outcomes. When I was preparing to attack for the win in game 2 I wasn't thinking about the worst-case scenario that Master Warcraft represented. More importantly, there were other cards that could also have wrecked me to a lesser extent and I wasn't really thinking about those either. I was thinking about how surprised he'd be at Predatory Focus and how he'd lose the game. I think it's fair to say that this wasn't the most useful thing to have on my mind. Underestimating weaker players generally is a fine way to lose to them and I almost got what I deserved.

As for the decision to keep my game 3 hand... I'll discuss that a bit more later.

Match 2 vs Errol

Game 1: The virtual die roll declared me the loser. It always makes me smile the way that on MtGO both players roll a single D6 and it's never a tie. Playing second I drew Mountain, Mountain, Vitu-Ghazi, Transluminant, Scab-Clan Mauler, Civic Wayfinder, Dowsing Shaman. Another really annoying hand. Sadly I have to keep. With a Forest the Wayfinder will give me Vitu-Ghazi mana which is enough to give me some sort of game. I've got nothing against flyers, but going to six probably wouldn't fix that.

Turn 1: Island from him, Mountain from me. I drew Farseek, which I really wasn't interested in.
Turn 2: Swamp and Dimir Signet from him, which was bad news. I drew Streetbreaker Wurm, which would be nice to have later but wasn't ideal right then.
Turn 3: Duskmantle and a Stinkweed Imp from him. Well, so much for that Wurm. On the other hand, if he was playing some kind of slow control deck - maybe even Dimir Mill - that was exactly what I needed to give me a chance. I drew my other Civic Wayfinder. Poo.
Turn 4: Snapping Drake from him and this was looking very bad. The gods of Magic taunted me by giving me Trophy Hunter as my draw. Great. I laughed insanely. My opponent assumed I was laughing at my manascrew and offered condolences.
Turn 5: My opponent made no play other than to activate Duskmantle, possibly feeling that overcommitment would be unwise in case I had Savage Twister. I checked his rating - not too bad, so he should know what he's doing. I drew my Burning-Tree Shaman.
Turn 6: Again, my opponent simply milled me a little, but now my life total was 11. I drew a land! Plains. Great. I conceded before he saw any more of my deck.

So it seems I don't always draw the Forest when I need it. Maybe I could blame the shuffler? I assume you've heard about "the shuffler"? When Magic Online was designed, the developers decided to discard decades of accumulated expertise in the field of pseudo-random number generation and instead design a completely new approach from scratch. This new technology, "the shuffler" to its friends, does not actually randomise Magic decks. What it does instead is to systematically clump your lands, resulting in constant manascrews and manafloods. Fortunately it has an inbuilt bias which means it gives a nice mix of mana and spells to players with high ratings. It's a very clever design.

I sided Silhana Ledgewalker out in favour of Crash Landing, because there's little point ledgewalking into a Drift of Phantasms or a Tattered Drake even with Moldervine Cloak on.

Game 2: My opening hand was Forest, Plains, Vitu-Ghazi, Elves of Deep Shadow, Moldervine Cloak, Nullmage Shepherd, Predatory Focus. Against U/B this is a very fine hand and I kept it without question.

Turn 1: Forest, Elves, Go. He played a Swamp.
Turn 2: I drew a Galvanic Arc, nice for later. Beat for 1. Plains. He had a turn 2 Lurking Informant. This was actually great news for me because I already had a complete win recipe in hand so if he wasted tempo trying to wreck my draws I simply wouldn't care. If he wanted to fix his own that was even better. If neither, he just played a 1/2 for 2!
Turn 3: I drew a Mountain, which was ideal. I could have Cloaked up my Elves but I decided to play out the Shepherd first since Elves are not really the ideal Cloak target. On his turn he settled for an Island and a Dimir Signet.
Turn 4: I drew Scab-Clan Mauler, but lacked the double Green to play both it and the Cloak. Still, the Mauler itself would make a fine Cloak target so I attacked with the Shepherd then played a Bloodthirsted Mauler. This felt bad since it left me with 3 unused mana, but I can't see a better play. He targeted me with the Informer but let me keep the card. Then things got nasty as he played out a Strands of Undeath on his Informant. I discarded Predatory Focus and the Arc. The Arc?!! The odd thing is, at the time I actually thought about keeping it, but various spurious thoughts kept me from doing so. First, I quite liked the idea of the land I pretty much knew was on top of my deck. Second, I didn't want to be Dredging facing a Mill deck. Third, I could always get the Arc back with Dowsing Shaman later. All of this reasoning was nonsense. The risk of being decked this game was small and even if it happened an extra three card buffer was unlikely to save me. Chances were I wouldn't even draw my Shaman. My need for land was not urgent by this point and I would very likely draw another naturally before it become a serious problem. I think the real difficulty was psychological - because the Cloak was my plan, it felt wrong to discard it. Well OK, no, the real problem is that I'm a moron, but that's not going to go away any time soon, I just have to play around that.

Pretty much anything in a
Moldervine Cloak is scary!
Turn 5: I drew a Forest as I expected, then Cloaked up the Mauler and swung with Mauler plus Shepherd to bring him to 11. He played a Dimir Cutpurse, which really didn't bother me much.
Turn 6: Mountain for me. I swung only with the Mauler and he let it through, taking him to 5. He used Informant on me again. On his turn he did absolutely nothing, which was a pleasant surprise. I made a Saproling.
Turn 7: Yet more land in the form of a Forest, which I played (worth keeping the Mountain in hand because he hadn't seen it). He had Thunderheads, but could only cast it for one token. This meant a dead Mauler for me and a dead Cutpurse for him. Seemed fair. On his turn he cast another Strands of Undeath. Result! I discarded the Mountain with little regret. Hehehe. Also nice because I might well have ended up discarding the Galvanic Arc here if it were still in my hand, meaning my earlier blunder had cost me very little.
Turn 8: I Dredged Cloak, enchanted a Saproling, swung taking him to 1 life and he conceded.

This game I won, but it was full of more cautionary tales. I was relaxed about the Informant because my hand was good, but didn't plan properly to play around discard despite the fact my opponent was U/B. I spent a lot of time setting up ideal circumstances to use my Cloak, which put me at increased risk from Clinging Darkness and to a lesser extent Pillory of the Sleepless or Faith's Fetters. I also misplayed by discarding my Arc, which is a choice that looks more ridiculous to me each time I review it.

Game 3: I was on the draw again and my opening hand was: Forest, Mountain, Gruul Turf, Elves of Deep Shadow, Moldervine Cloak, Nullmage Shepherd, Dowsing Shaman. Another easy keeper.

Turn 1: Island. Forest, Elves, go. (Drew another Forest)
Turn 2: Swamp, Dimir Infiltrator. Mountain, Goblin Spelunkers, go.
Turn 3: Mountain, Dimir Cutpurse. I did a quick check - it wasn't Christmas. Yup, my opponent had just played a previously unseen Red splash land straight after my Spelunkers! I used my Elves to make a 5/5 Mountainwalker then dropped Gruul Turf. Oh so sweet. By the way, I drew Streetbreaker Wurm. Of course, this let my opponent hit me with Cutpurse. Not ideal, but I felt it was well worth it.
Turn 4: He was stuck on 3 land and had no play. He was still on 3 land after the Cutpurse hit - manascrew strikes again. I discarded Forest, knocked him to 10 and played out Streetbreaker Wurm having drawn Crash Landing.
Turn 5: He found another Island and after a lot of thought played Compulsive Research, discarding spells. On my turn he chumped with the Infiltrator and dropped to 5 life. I drew and played another Forest.
Turn 6: He played a 5th land (no idea if he topdecked it) and Ogre Savant bounced my Spelunkers. He maybe shouldn't have done this before combat, since it meant I no longer wanted to chump his Cutpurse. I discarded Crash Landing, but now I could cloak up the Elves to knock him to 1 life and he lost his Ogre chumping my Wurm.
Turn 7: He had Stinkweed Imp, but I simply attacked with both and played out Spelunkers once more. Unfortunately a quick Convolute on the Spelunkers and suddenly he's not completely dead. Uh oh.
Turn 8: He recast Imp and my Streetbreaker Wurm couldn't attack... unless I drew a second Streetbreaker. Which I did. I decided to keep up the pressure and make the trade.
Turn 9: He recast Imp again, his library now down to 11 cards. I drew land. It wasn't over yet.
Turn 10: He played a Snapping Drake. I responded with Silhana Ledgewalker.
Turn 11: With my Ledgewalker threatening to pick up a Cloak, he played Dimir House-Guard. I was just calculating if I could be confident of decking him if he Dredged the Imp again... when I topdecked Skybreaker. I briefly pondered waiting until I had another land to play and fire it in a single turn, but I could easily have been dead by then. I played the Skybreaker and he didn't draw his removal. Game to me.

That seemed like a game I ought to have lost. He had terrible mana trouble, I drew all my best threats and he still only narrowly lost. The truth is that my deck hates Stinkweed Imp. My ability to deal with flyers is based on the fact that I can race them. My deck hits hard. If something stops it from hitting hard, things get bad quickly.

On the positive side having now reached the finals at least the draft had paid for itself. Drafting on Magic Online is much cheaper than real life... but a lot of that is because of the prize support. Keep losing and it gets expensive quickly.

Match 3 vs Raging Keith

Game 1: I won the die roll and drew a decent hand of Mountain, Plains, Gruul Turf, Selesnya Signet, Burning-Tree Shaman, Trophy Hunter. Keep.

Turn 1: Mountain from me, Forest from him.
Turn 2: I drew a second Mountain (shame) and played my Signet. He played a second Forest and a Boros Signet. Pleasing symmetry.
Turn 3: I played my Shaman and the Gruul Turf having drawn a potentially handy Gather Courage (which is at its best against Red). He had no third land but played a Thundersong Trumpeter - that's bad news for my deck since I have a sorry lack of pingers. Apart from my lone Galvanic Arc the only other thing I had which could take it out was Skarrgan Skybreaker!
Turn 4: I drew Goblin Spelunkers but opted to play Trophy Hunter first since he didn't have a Mountain down yet. Of course, the same was true of flyers, but I'm almost as happy to strand those in an opponent's hand as shoot them down. He responded with a third land and Faith's Fetters on my Shaman. Already this was looking very bad for me. The fact he'd missed a land drop meant his five remaining cards were all spells, whilst his Trumpeter and Fetters between them had my board worse than neutralized (worse than because if I played something better than Hunter he could start Trumpeting that instead). So for those of you keeping score at home that was Goblin Spelunkers plus Gather Courage against five spells. Ouch. My only faint hope was that at least the Shaman hurt him every time he used the Trumpeter.
Turn 5: I drew Predatory Focus (not good right now) and played out the Goblin. He dropped another land and played Bramble Elemental.
Turn 6: I drew Vitu-Ghazi. He tapped down my Spelunkers, so I attacked with Trophy Hunter. To my surprise he blocked with the Elemental, so I traded Gather Courage for it. He played Gruul Nodorog on his turn, which I just looked at gloomily and then forgot to make a Saproling. Doh!
Turn 7: I topdecked and played Streetbreaker Wurm. He elected not to attack with Nodorog and played out an Ursapine. I smiled inwardly at the amount of damage I knew he was about to take from my Shaman! Unfortunately I didn't have much else to smile about.
Turn 8: I drew a Forest, which determined my plan. After playing it I had two cards still in hand - Plains and Focus - which was fine for bluffing a trick. I attacked with the Wurm hoping he'd let it through to set up for a Predatory Focus finish in a turn or two. However, he was happy to trade his 6-drop for my superior 5 drop or possibly even for the non-existent trick in my hand. Poo. Fortunately one of his cards in hand turned out to be Farseek and he played another Forest, so the game still wasn't looking hopeless. I let his Ursapine through for just 3 and he cast nothing further after combat. So... it was a race, which meant Predatory Focus might yet save me.
Turn 9: My draw was Transluminant, which wasn't stellar but at least wasn't land. He let me attack with all three creatures, which surprised me but made plenty of sense. I had to decide between 2 damage or 5 and losing the Trophy Hunter. After brief pondering I opted for the 5. He attacked back with both and I blocked Trumpeter with Transluminant. He took another 2 points of Shaman damage to keep it alive and I took 1 to get my flying token. Annoyingly, he then played an Elvish Skysweeper. After his turn I was on 11 and he was on 10.
Turn 10: I drew Farseek. Not ideal. Now I was in trouble. If I attacked with all he'd 2-for-1 me with the Skysweeper, but if I didn't he clear favourite to win the race. I held the Saprolings back, hoping to draw something good next turn. He attacked and I opted for no blocks so that either Galvanic Arc or Skarrgan Skybreaker would win it for me. He played Indentured Oaf.
Turn 11: I drew Forest. OK, at least I could attack for 3 then muster four desperation blockers to give me one last topdeck. On his turn, he had Wildsize... but neglected to play it before damage was on the stack. Worse still, he had already pumped his dude using the Ursapine in preparation. No stolen win for me, though - he also had Fiery Conclusion and bumped off my Spelunkers.
Turn 12: I drew Mountain. Game to him.

Although that was a loss, it could have been worse. He drew a lot of fat Green things there and I still had some chances. He didn't have Glare of Subdual. Focus on the positive.

Game 2: On the play my opening hand was: Forest, Gruul Turf, Civic Wayfinder, Trophy Hunter, Dowsing Shaman, Streetbreaker Wurm, Streetbreaker Wurm. This is a very good hand and I kept happily.

Turn 1: Forest, go. Forest, go.
Turn 2: I found a second Forest, which was the 5th mana source I needed for my hand to go off. I played the Turf. He played a Mountain a Farseek for a second. I was a little sad he had the acceleration.
Turn 3: I drew a third Forest, which was slightly surplus to requirements, then played the Hunter (not the Wayfinder, because that applies less pressure). He played Indentured Oaf.
Turn 4: Oh look, my fourth Forest. Now I'm not so happy. I played the Wayfinder to get Plains. When he attacked I risked the double block and was rewarded - he had no trick. Elvish Skysweeper and Viashino Fangtail replenished his board.
Turn 5: I drew Mountain. Now this was getting annoying. Played Streetbreaker. Nuff said. Annoyingly, he responded with a Trumpeter.
Turn 6: Plains off the top. Looked like I was going to lose with a mana flood. I attacked with my Wurm, expecting to trade with the Fangtail and a glimmer of hope appeared - he let me hit him! He dropped a 7th land and played Bramble Elemental.
Turn 7: I drew Vitu-Ghazi, which could be worse. One of my Wurms traded with his Elemental and I played Dowsing Shaman. Potential disaster struck when he responded with a Sunhome Enforcer.
Turn 8: I drew Predatory Focus and started to hate that Enforcer even more. I thought for a bit. His Fangtail cancelled my Vitu-Ghazi, neither of us could properly break through apart from that, so I concluded we were topdecking. I could only hope the three lands in my hand were intimidating him. On his turn he played Fists of Ironwood on his Enforcer but did nothing else.

Green made a mistake switching back to Saprolings
for its 1/1s. Would you ping a cute widdle squirrel?
Turn 9: I drew Moldervine Cloak. I was just about to play it on my Wayfinder when it occurred to me that I might be able to persuade him to trade his Enforcer. I instead played the Cloak on a Saproling. He pinged it in response. I then played another Forest, brought the Cloak back with Dowsing Shaman, then replayed it on Wayfinder. He used the Trumpeter to stop Wayfinder from attacking, but now he either had to chump my Wurm (which would probably be correct) or trade it with his Enforcer. To my astonishment he took a third option I hadn't even considered and lets it hit him! On his turn, he Trumpeted the Wayfinder again, attacked with everything, then played a Bloodthirsted Ghor-Clan Savage. With only RG remaining, there's no trick he can have which can stop Predatory Focus from taking the game.

Interesting and unusual finish there, but I think it's fair to say that it was a serious error for my opponent not to chump block my Wurm. Unless he has Overwhelm in his deck somewhere he just doesn't need one extra Saproling.

Ooh, deciding game - the crowd were on the edge of their seats! (The crowd in this case actually consisted mostly of empty Coke cans. But they love me.)

Game 3: Forest, Forest, Moldervine Cloak, Burning Tree Bloodscale, Predatory Focus, Siege Wurm, Skarrgan Skybreaker. This hand's a mulligan. But wait... No, keep. I'll tell you why after the match.

Turn 1: Forest from him. I drew a third Forest.
Turn 2: Mountain and Boros Signet from him. I drew a 4th Forest.
Turn 3: Fangtail from him. I drew a Civic Wayfinder and fetched a Mountain.
Turn 4: Fangtail hit me for 3 and he played a thirsted Bloodscale Prowler. I drew another Forest, cloaked up my Wayfinder and attacked.
Turn 5: He hit me for 7 (ouch!) then had no play. With three Mountains, a Plains and a Boros Signet it looked like he was short on Green. I drew Streetbreaker Wurm. I hit him for 5... and almost played the Wurm, then realised a thirsted Burning Tree Bloodscale was potentially quite a bit better, because I can kill a Trumpeter with it! Also, his two existing creatures could not take down my Wayfinder without both dying. Better still, if they did take down the Wayfinder I could have a 6/6 Burning-Tree Bloodscale the next turn.
Turn 6: He attacked with his Bloodscale (different flavor - Wizards only do this to make it hard to write match reports) and we trade. I was happy enough - saved my Wurm for another day. He played another Plains, but then cast a mere Sparkmage Apprentice. I drew a Mountain and after some thought elected not to attack. I had access to 7 land. My hand was full of gas. The one way I could lose is if I let him hit me - why take that chance?
Turn 7: He played another Mountain, but no spells. Game over. The turn after, he drew a Forest as his empty board faced 10 power of attackers.

So my deck somehow made it all the way, mostly no thanks to my mediocre play. I should mention by way of partial self-defence on that score that if you ever record your matches and replay them a few days later you'll quite often be surprised how many of your own play errors you spot.

On to the interesting stuff. Let's start with a quick micro-summary of how each game went...

Match 1, Game 1: Win due to opponent's inferior card quality.
Match 1, Game 2: Loss due to Master Warcraft.
Match 1, Game 3: Win due to opponent's inferior card quality.
Match 2, Game 1: Loss due to opponent's tempo advantage over my mana problems.
Match 2, Game 2: Win due to tempo advantage over opponent's slow hand.
Match 2, Game 3: Win due to tempo advantage as opponent resolves his mana.
Match 3, Game 1: Loss due to opponent's superior card quality.
Match 3, Game 2: Win due to opponent's misplays.
Match 3, Game 3: Win due to tempo advantage over opponent's mana problems.

Now compare that with the cards I drew in each game (note: drew, not put into play)...

Match 1, Game 1: 6 lands, 8 spells.
Match 1, Game 2: 8 lands, 8 spells (1 unused - Crash Landing).
Match 1, Game 3: 5 lands, 9 spells (1 unused - Crash Landing).
Match 2, Game 1: 4 lands, 9 spells (9 unused).
Match 2, Game 2: 7 lands, 8 spells.
Match 2, Game 3: 7 lands (plus one discarded), 10 spells.
Match 3, Game 1: 8 lands, 11 spells (1 unused - Farseek).
Match 3, Game 2: 8 lands, 9 spells.
Match 3, Game 3: 6 lands, 7 spells (1 unused).

The second game of the finals is the only one where I drew a large amount of land and still won = and that's the game in which my opponent made a serious error. The other loss I suffered was a game where I didn't cast a single spell.

And that's why I kept the two-land hand in my final game, because I'd come to understand the nature of the deck I'd built. It has almost no flexibility at all. It's very hard to be clever with it. It comes roaring out of the gates and beats down... or loses.

As Magic players, we like the idea that if we can get enough lands into play to start casting spells then the game becomes a test of skill. Sometimes that's certainly true, but not always. We're all familiar with the scenario "my opponent had a bomb, I had no chance". That's just one extreme case. The GRw draft deck I've written about here is another extreme case - it seldom offers much in the way of strategic choice during the game. It doesn't require much skill to play. In many respects, when I initially concluded it was a strong deck, I was wrong.

Can you see the parallel? The strategy this deck adopts is exactly like the strategy I used to approach the Bridge tournament I mentioned at the start. If you can't draft a deck which is versatile, has answers, generates card advantage, contains removal and all those things we all know are good... You can instead draft a deck which simply needs a bit of good luck.

Of course, being a lucksack isn't a strategy in itself, what's going on is that this deck cannot stand to be starved of spells and so the gamble you're taking is that you will draw the mix of land and spells you need. The big risk you take is in drafting a deck like this in the first place. In borderline cases like the third game of match one or the third game of the finals you don't mulligan as you would with some decks. Instead, you accept the risk, knowing that even a good six card hand slashes the deck's odds of winning dramatically.

Constructed players have for a long time had a saying "there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers". This often sounded odd to my Limited player's ears, accustomed as I was to loving my removal and filling the last couple of slots in my deck with weak threats. Now I think I can finally see where this concept fits in with Limited - in decks like mine. And fittingly this comes at a time when Constructed players are just beginning to conclude that maybe there are some wrong threats after all!

Lastly, if you ever find yourself with this kind of deck... good luck!


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