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By: CZML, Cassie Mulholland-London
Jun 04 2015 11:00am
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In practically all Constructed formats, going first is a very significant advantage. The ability to play your cards before your opponent plays theirs gives you quite an edge. Most players know this, which is why professional players basically never decide to go second.

The same is true of most other games, including chess (but surprisingly not poker), and most sports. In tennis, for example, going first is such a significant advantage that much of the sport's strategy revolves around either exploiting or neutralizing said advantage.

To develop the analogy further: in singles (1v1) tennis, one player is serving (hitting the ball first), while the other is receiving (trying to return the serve). The serving player serves for an entire game, then the players switch. Serving is such a huge advantage that Andre Agassi, who in his prime had one of the best service return percentages in the sport, only won about one third of the games where he was receiving compared to four-fifths of the games where he was serving. Magic and chess work the same way; your win percentage will be significantly higher when you go first than when you go second.

Going first, both in tennis and in Magic, means that you get the first chance to control the pace of the game. Playing a turn one Monastery Swiftspear is like hitting a flat serve deep in the service box--you're immediately taking control of the game and trying to push your opponent off balance. If they stumble, the game will be over almost before it begins. Playing a turn one Thoughtseize is like hitting a slice serve in the corner--you aren't trying to win right away, but you're trying to disrupt your opponent enough to create an imbalance (in the tennis example, keep your opponent running from side to side or press them into the corner) and eventually exploit said imbalance to win before your opponent fully gets their footing. Playing a turn one Deathrite Shaman is like hitting a kick serve that bounces at an odd angle--again, you aren't trying to win immediately, but to slow your opponent down and accelerate your own plan.

With each of these first-turn plays, your opponent is forced to adapt their strategy to deal with what you're doing. They can't execute their plan until they first answer yours (or, more rarely, find a way to ignore it). By playing the first spell of the game, you've made a bold statement: "This game is going to be played on my terms."

In tennis, a concept exists called "breaking serve." The theory is that, in each set (first to six, win by two), if you hold your serve (win your service game) every game and break your opponent's serve (win your receiving game) once, you can get a comfortable set win at six games to four. Do that one or two more times and you win the match. Because of this, the majority of singles tennis strategy revolves around the receiving player's attempt to break serve.

Because there are more variable in Magic--metagaming and mulligan decisions and sideboarding--things are a bit more complicated, and breaking serve is less of a focal point. But to be honest, it's still one of the single most important concepts, both in deckbuilding and in playing. However, because matches of Magic don't have to be won by two games, you only have to break serve in half of your matches. The other half, you'll be on the play twice in three games and can just hold your serve to win the match.

So if being on the play is an advantage, how do we exploit it when we have it? How do we compensate for it when we don't? Well, exploiting being on the play is actually something that we already do: maximize your mana curve, make sure your mana base plays smoothly, and play aggressively costed cards. If you're already doing all of those things, you don't have to do anything extra to utilize the advantage in tempo; like any resource advantage, it will snowball naturally. There is definitely an argument for taking more aggressive lines when you are on the play, as such lines are more effective when you have a slight edge in tempo, but context should generally give you an idea of how you want to play a given decision point regardless of whether you are on the play or the draw.

The more interesting question is "how do you break serve?" How do you effectively counteract the inherent advantage your opponent gets by having the first shot? How do you compensate for that advantage in initiative? Professional tennis players use a number of different techniques, all of which can be applied to Magic.

Technique 1: Play defensively. This is probably the most common technique to break serve, and one that most players with a significant amount of experience have a very solid grasp of. In tennis, it means hitting soft but well-placed shots to give yourself enough time to recover. Most tennis players use lobs with a bit of topspin to slow their opponent down, allowing them to regain the positioning they lost by being on the receiving end of the serve. In Magic, this means keeping the board relatively clear so your opponent can't convert their small tempo advantage into something larger. The idea is that eventually, your opponent will stumble and you can regain the initiative. This technique only really works if your cards are stronger in the late game than your opponent's; it's harder (though not impossible) to use if your cards have a similar power level, and almost never works if your cards are weaker than your opponent's.

Technique 2: Fight back. If you're receiving in tennis and your opponent's serve is somewhat weak or your groundstrokes (fundamental shots like forehand and backhand) are stronger than those of your opponent, you can break serve by playing strongly back at your opponent right from the start. This is different from hitting a service return winner (covered below) because you aren't trying to turn your opponent's strength against them. You're just trying to overpower them in a fair fight. In Magic, this involves getting on the board right after your opponent and trying to keep up with or surpass them in a tempo battle. It generally works best when you're playing a similarly positioned deck but your cards are better overall than your opponent's, or when your opponent comes out of the gate strong but then stumbles. If you can get a relevant mana advantage, it makes using this technique much easier, as each of your turns is theoretically more impactful than your opponent's.

Technique 3: Return and volley. One of the differences between Magic and tennis is that the player going first isn't always the player that casts the first spell. In tennis, a return and volley is when the receiving player returns the serve in a way that's takes the server out of position, giving the receiver time to rush the net. Once at the net, the receiver is in a very threatening position and has firmly taken the initiative. In Magic, though, all you need to do is to be the first one on the board. Whether your opponent plays a tapped land, a Thoughtseize, or a Serum Visions on turn 1, if you can play a one-drop threat, you've reversed the tempo dynamic. Free mana acceleration like Simian Spirit Guide, a Mox, or even Ancient Tomb all help this along. This technique is mostly applied in deckbuilding, when you decide that you're going to play a more aggressive gameplan and include a higher-than-average number of one-mana creatures. Note that return and volley is very similar to fighting back, except that fighting back still involves falling behind in the very early stage of the game. Fighting back is more of a brute force technique and capitalizes on card quality, whereas return and volley involves being more aggressively positioned than your opponent.

Technique 4: Service return winner. This technique is one of the most powerful, as it usually ends up being extremely decisive, but it's also one of the most difficult to apply correctly. The basic idea is that you're trying to use your opponent's advantage in tempo against them by immediately capitalizing on their lack of position. In tennis, if your opponent hits a serve that's too easy to return--say, it isn't fast enough or it lands too shallow in the service box--you can hit a hard service return into a place that's difficult for them to reach in time. Often, when such a strong service return doesn't result in an immediate "winner" by getting you the point right away, it sets you up for an even more devastating shot. In Magic, this is a little more complicated than in tennis. Because of the way mana development works, even if your opponent doesn't have an early threat and you do, as long as they hit their land drops they can keep up with their next turn play. To truly use this technique, you have to punish an opponent's stumble so severely that they can't get back into the game, and it usually involves them tapping out before you. Instant speed spells are absolutely critical for this type of situation. For example, imagine a UB Control mirror where each player has access to an unremovable draw engine in Phyrexian Arena. If your opponent on the play immediately slams their third land and casts Arena into your two untapped mana, you can counter it and then play your own Arena on your turn. Then, without the ability to remove the Arena from play, your opponent will always be one step behind you. Or, to use an example that may be a bit more fresh in players' minds: the RW Aggro mirror match in Fate Reforged Standard. Conventional wisdom was to sideboard out Goblin Rabblemaster on the draw because yours came down after your opponent's. But players often had success leaving Rabblemaster in, at least against opponents who weren't intimately familiar with the matchup. What would happen was that the player on the play would tap out for a Rabblemaster and the player on the draw would kill it with a burn spell before combat. Then, the player on the draw would untap, drop their third land, and play a Rabblemaster of their own--one that was guaranteed to get value by generating a token. While this isn't necessarily an insurmountable advantage, the mirror match often came down to narrow margins, and the extra token and point of damage often made a difference. In addition, if the player on the play didn't have an immediate answer for their opponent's Rabblemaster, the game was basically over.

Technique 5: Ignore your opponent. This technique doesn't work in tennis, nor in most situations in Magic, but it can be relevant in certain matchups or boardstates. Sometimes, if you're not interacting on the same axis as your opponent, you can just completely ignore what they're doing. All the board presence in the world matters little if you're putting nine copies of Tendrils of Agony onto the stack or casting Boros Charm when your opponent is at 4. But it's kind of a fallacy to say that this is a good way to break serve, as most games won in this fashion would have been even easier if you were the one on the play. Zoo can't usually kill Burn by attacking if they're on the draw, but on the play the fact that their creatures have summoning sickness is mitigated by the fact that they get to deal damage multiple times. In addition, a turn three Liliana of the Veil against Storm combo is much more debilitating than the same card on turn four. Nonetheless, if you can ignore your opponent's board presence instead of having to interact with it, you can often minimize the strength of their value creatures and/or prevent them from snowballing a board advantage by casting creatures and then using removal to clear away blockers.

Wow! This has been my longest article to date, and possibly the most important. I tried to cover every situation I could think of and give you all a solid understanding of how to accomplish one of the most important things in Magic. I want to stress, though, that most of the methods here require preparation; you need to make the right decisions when building your deck and sideboard and you need to have a good idea of how to mulligan properly in order to execute your plan in the matchup. Nevertheless, with skill and practice, you should be able to use these techniques to great effect.


Casper Mulholland

tikipanda on MTGO

@CasperZML on Twitter


This was a very well thought by Joe Fiorini at Thu, 06/04/2015 - 12:34
Joe Fiorini's picture

This was a very well thought out article. Good work!

Thanks! It took me quite a by CZML at Thu, 06/04/2015 - 15:37
CZML's picture

Thanks! It took me quite a while to write it because there was so much I wanted to cover. I think I got everything I wanted, but I'm sure a more experienced player would have a few other tips and tricks that I missed.

When I've gone into detail by Joe Fiorini at Thu, 06/04/2015 - 18:15
Joe Fiorini's picture

When I've gone into detail about Magic theory, I've often had the problem of having an over-abundance of information to write about. Sometimes, it's hard to organize everything as well. Your piece came out coherent, and put into words something that I've not considered in as much detail.

Keep up the good work. I like longer articles, and I love it when writers go deep on a subject. Magic is very complex, and articles like this help to illustrate that point.

I totally understand. Theory by CZML at Thu, 06/04/2015 - 18:33
CZML's picture

I totally understand. Theory is a very dense subject, and somewhat difficult to write about. If it becomes too abstract, you risk making it difficult to follow and removing its relevance from gameplay. If it becomes too concrete, you risk it becoming too context-driven and not universal enough.

I've found that conceits such as the tennis references in this article really help keep my theoretical pieces grounded and organized without losing their general applicability.

I think that's a good point. by Joe Fiorini at Thu, 06/04/2015 - 19:07
Joe Fiorini's picture

I think that's a good point. Metaphors can aid in people's understanding for sure. :)

I can't wait to see the next one!

This was a very well thought by Joe Fiorini at Thu, 06/04/2015 - 12:34
Joe Fiorini's picture

This was a very well thought out article. Good work!