CalmLittleBuddy's picture
By: CalmLittleBuddy, Christopher M. Dansereau
Apr 16 2015 12:00pm
Login or register to post comments

I'm pretty darn famous for my extended losing streaks. I can string together consecutive losses like a rainbow strings together helicopters. So, I have to have lots of reminders, lessons, tools, shortcuts and other stuff to help pull me back to Planet SaneAlwaysWinning. I am suddenly reminded of Lesson 26 of tournament preparation.

Lesson Twenty-six of Tournament Preparation: To Get Better at Magic, Return to IHOP.

Maybe you're thinking "Wow. Some lucky Friday Night Magic plays their matches at International House of Pancakes?" or that I win by putting delicious Vintage Storm Syrup on my cards. Perhaps. But that's not what I'm on about. Although, some cards always make me think of breakfast.

Daybreak Coronet 

Sunny side up!

Look at that thing! I swear it's like fried egg staring me down and daring me to chew its cardboard posterior to bits! And the guys is all like "Yeah! I want eggs. Yeah! I want them in my tooth cave!"  It even has 'daybreak' in the name. I can feel Barry Manilow winking at me with the waffle maker and the breakfast cheeses and the umbrella and... ahem. Thinking: If I'm really expecting to compete at Providence this year, I'll need IHOP. It's not a restaurant you silly moo cow! It's a special plan. How special? It changes from one word into four! Watch.






This is my recipe for success. It's a little something I whipped up to remind myself of the process I want to go through whenever I hit a critical decision point in a game.

Let me explain. Every game can be broken down into a series of decision points. A decision point is a moment in a game where a player has several choices that deserve consideration. Every turn begins the same. Upkeep, Draw, First Main Phase. The first main phase of each turn is usually a decision point. Do I play a land? If so, which one? Do I play a creature before combat? Do I wait until my second main phase to play a land or cast a creature spell?

It's in our nature when under pressure (especially time pressure) to snap off our decisions, trusting that we know a good enough play to move forward. We've done this so many times. We've seen so many games and played so many matches, a lot of what we do when we play comes automatically. Unfortunately, autopilot of any kind is not good enough if you are truly trying to compete in a large organized cash payout style tournament. Even simple decisions become magnified as your competition gets stronger and stronger.

We know a good play when we see it. Many times we settle for one that's 'good enough'. There may be a few 'good enough' plays to choose from. Sometimes we don't even get punished for not looking deeper. Even when all we have are great choices, there should still be one singular line of play that's best. Maybe there's a situation where two lines look equal, but technically, one will always be a slightly, tiny meencie bit better.

What is a line of play? A line of play is a play or series of plays that leads to one of a set of outcomes. Sometimes we choose a line of play and our opponent steers play away from the result we expected. That doesn't mean the line wasn't there, it just means we didn't correctly analyze that line. A 'good' line of play is one where the outcome is favorable, and any alteration by our opponent will only make that outcome more favorable for us. Sometimes we select a line of play as the lesser of two evils. The situation is clearly bad, but we find a way to reach a less harmful outcome. Sometimes there are no good lines available. That's when we play what gives us the most outs and our opponent the most chances to screw up.

Magic is not like Chess in regard to lines of play.  Lines in Chess are bound by the number of possible legal moves allowed at a given time. Not so in Magic. Each card drawn is random. It would be like randomly giving one player a Queen out of nowhere. Lines can become fuzzy after a few cards are drawn. Even if we know every single card in an opponent's deck, we can't possibly do the math for each card plus every sequence of cards each time we sit at a decision point. So, what do we do?

That's why we need a simplified, concrete decision making tool.

IHOP is the tool that I use. It is my method for centering my mind and focusing in to find the best line in a given situation. I start with the "I", and make my way through each letter until I reach the "P" (insert third grade snickering here). The letters and concepts are not in order of importance, but follow logically from a starting point (Looking at all the Information), to a conclusion (the actual enacting of the plan, or the "Play").

To be clear, I'll tell you what each word means to me in relation to a game of Magic.


Courser of Kruphix

This is a great example of a Magic card that gives information. We play it, and turn the top card of our library face up. Our opponent can see that face up card and so can we. It's a wonder that more folks don't point out the very obvious disadvantage of having Courser of Kruphix in play. Maybe it's too obvious to bear mentioning?  It's such a strong card, most of us just snap it off and get to work playing extra lands. But if I leave it in play for 4 or more turns, it's almost like giving the opponent a free Gitaxian Probe. Almost. They see every card drawn until all the cards in my hand are known. With the information, they can make more informed choices. I slot Courser of Kruphix in almost any deck with Green mana, and I play it whenever I get the chance. But I have always been keenly aware that my opponent is staring at my bedtime parts as I draw cards.

Information can be about our own deck. If we play a lot of cards with double Black mana cost, we need to get our lands that produce Black mana out early, even if we don't have one of those spells in hand. If we ignore that crucial bit of information (and let's face it, we all did when we first started playing) we could draw one of those spells and then be stuck in the awkward situation of not having the correct mana to play it. We also should know our 'outs', meaning cards that save our behind or can win us the game. We need to know our land count, chances to draw certain colors of land, how many come into play untapped, etc etc. We've gone over this. You should be able to recite your deck list while being hung upside down from a 747 after drinking White Russians for six hours straight.

We do not want our opponent getting information about our deck. It's going to happen over the course of a game, but we want to limit what they know. If you can't win game 1 but have this sweet card in hand that you're itching to play, hold it. No need for our opponent to know about it. Do we counter that Thoughtseize? Not only does it take a card but reveals what we have left in our hand.

We also want to gain as much information from our opponent as possible. Spells that allow us to see their hand are great, but there are other ways too. If they have the Courser of Kruphix in play and you want to kill it, sometimes it makes sense to do it after their draw step, so we get to see the card they drew plus the next one on top of their deck. If they leave two mana up and one of those mana can be Blue, that tells us there's probably a counterspell in hand. If they lead with a Mountain, that usually tells you there's going to make some aggressive plays. Equally important is hiding information from your opponent. We'll discuss more of this later in the article.

To put it simply, information is a valuable and often underrated resource. Always review the information available about the board, your hand, your deck, your adversary's hand and deck (if possible) and whatever else you can glean from the game. Information is power.


As amateurs, many of our games are lost when we don't take into account what our opponent is capable of playing in reaction to our plays. Knowing what an opponent's possible responses are, and then minimizing the impact of the most dangerous and most likely of those responses is called 'playing around' their gameplan. It's the opposite of 'playing into' their game plan, which every once in a while is actually a good option. Usually, we want to be playing around our opponent's most potent plays.

End Hostilities

Useful against many creatures and/or in-laws

Far too many times I've thrown every piece of creature meat down onto the table and been blown out by a sweeper spell like old End Hostilities. Playing around End Hostilities might entail keeping a few of those valuable creatures in hand and making what we have already on the board enough of a concern to force out opponent to wrath away. Then, with his/her mana tapped out, we play the creatures we held back.

One way to strengthen your ability to hedge is to always assume the worst is coming, and be ready with a plan when it does. You can't live for long in that mode, but hanging out there for a while will make you better at anticipating bad situations.

We don't want to play scared, though. Stick to the most unfavorable and more likely plays your opponent can make. I keep repeating that because it's important. Don't look for every single possible play, and don't play around their relatively harmless plays just to thwart them. You have to weigh your positive plays versus your preventative plays. If playing your Siege Rhino brings them to 1 life, but gets you dead when they Hero's Downfall it and attack for lethal, then playing the Rhino is obviously not good. By the same token, refusing to play Siege Rhino into an open board because we're afraid they'll just kill it isn't productive either. Be ready, but be realistic.

It's harder with less straightforward plays. That's why it is usually recommended to beginning players that they stick to damage based decks.  I still have trouble knowing when to Dissolve and when to Dissipate.


Even their own mother gets them confused...

The more straightforward your decks plan, the easier it is for you to know what to play around. Unfortunately, it makes it easier for the person across the table as well. Boo. I hate them. Showing examples of hedging is much easier than going into a lot of theory, so we'll save the rest for our examples below.


Dude, don't talk to me about order. I just want to play my spells and smash face! Okay, fine, I guess we need to think about the sequence in which we play our cards. A simple example is playing lands before or after combat. Which is correct? Both and neither. It's specific to each situation. I've been told to defer playing a land until after combat if you are unsure what the correct decision is. The same is true of playing creatures. The longer you can hold onto those cards in the turn, the less information your opponent has. Also, what you do in combat may require a response from them, depriving them of mana to mess with you until their turn. I think of it this way: if I need the mana from the land (or effect the land gives) before or during combat, I play the land first main phase. Same with creatures. If a creature enters the battlefield and gives each of my creatures +2/0 for that turn, I'll play it first main phase.

We also need to know in what order to cast the spells themselves. Hopefully you know what the stack is by now. It's the record of spells that have been cast (or abilities that have been used), but have yet to resolve. So, when I monstrous my Fleecemane Lion, my opponent has a chance to respond before my ability resolves. In 93.6% of the cases, the stacks works in LIFO mode, Last In First Out. Meaning the last spell that gets cast is the first to resolve on the stack. So, if I monstrous that lion, and you play Hero's Downfall on it, your removal happens first because it was the last spell cast. My Lion would die before it became monstrous. Sad face. Of course, I could cast Negate in response (what? I'm playing Bant, grow up!), in which case Negate resolves first, countering the Downfall, then my monstrous resolves and Lion and I live happily ever after in our hexproof indestructible house of ultra-hotness! CATS!

Fleecemane Lion

His fleece was white as snow.

So, the order in which we play lands, creatures, spells and abilities is very important to making a correct choice of what to play, when and how to play it. I guess. Which brings me to the P in IHOP (add potty humor here).


Well that's stupid. Of course we're going to play! There's more. Don't 'just play'. You went in the tank for a reason. Enact your plan carefully and exactly as you thought it out. If it turns out to be not good enough, that's fine. If it turns out you start your plan, then punt the turn by misplaying your spells, even though you prepared yourself not to, that's not as acceptable. I've done it. We all have. We come up with the brilliant line, we start down that line then... we forget what comes next, or we suddenly think we see something better and dive for it, or we click too fast and screw up our sequence.  Play it out the way you intended from the strategy, otherwise all this planning is a waste of time.

Don't forget after all the leg work you still have to play cleanly. Don't get sloppy. Don't rush. Play deliberately in the most important sequences.When the pressure becomes immense

Become Immense


Sorry. When the pressure gets heavy, that's the time to slow down, refocus and play tight. The best players go into the zone when the pressure hits them. Watch a Pro Tour's final 4 rounds. Watch what happens. You'll see one game where Dude A is so far behind Chick Z that the game should most certainly be over. Then, the Dude A sits back and thumbs at his cards. He slowly, deliberately taps mana, stops, looks at the board, and plays a spell. No one sees the subtle shift but the Dude. Maybe one of the announcers says "Oh, wait a minute..." Suddenly, one subtle play made elegantly during a time of horrifying adversity turns a match around. Next thing you will see is the Dude has lightning fast answers for everything, and wins in a few turns. It's totally amazing, but you can actually see world class players flip the switch before the play is even made. Watch them closely.

Okay, enough about that! Let's take a few quick examples! As always, these are meant as a means for demonstrating how I use IHOP to sift through the possibilities of a decision point. If there's a flaw in my logic or in the example itself, please excuse me as you would your weird uncle Stowe when he breaks wind at Thanksgiving. Or just kill me in the comments section.

We're playing Abzan Control. It's game 2 in a best of 3 match versus Mono Red Aggro. We are on the play, because our opponent blew our doors off with haste creatures and dash creatures plus burn in game 1. It is the beginning of turn 2 and our board is empty except for one lonely Temple of Malady Our hand looks like this:

Windswept HeathSandsteppe CitadelTemple of SilenceHero's DownfallCourser of KruphixSiege RhinoUltimate Price

Our lovely and talented opponent has a Monastery Swiftspear and one Mountain in play. They have 6 cards in hand and will draw a seventh on their turn. They 'snap kept' their hand as if it were gold. In game one, we saw them play Goblin Rabblemaster, dash creatures, and token spells at sorcery speed plus a few burn spells like Stoke the Flames and Lightning Strike. It's our turn. How do we proceed? IHOP!

Information. Our deck has 3 Bile Blight and one Pharika's Cure in the 60 we chose for this game. We have 24 lands, but have Satyr Wayfinders to get extra lands and to pitch cards for delve later. Our opponent has not seen us play Bile Blight. In fact, they don't know we're playing control. They beat us so silly we never had a chance to show our true colors. Our opponent also took very aggressive lines, not playing around removal at all.

Hedge. We know what our opponent will be doing. The Swiftspear will be joined next turn by another creature, possibly two, and may get a prowess trigger from an instant when it attacks. We need to be aware not only of what is on the board, but what will be on the board the turn after we play a land and say 'go'. We can't snap off the Windswept Heath, grab a forest and stick Ultimate Price up the Swiftspear's Monastery. Not until we finish our analysis. We want to play around the most likely and most threatening options out opponent could have.

In this situation it's easy. We want to stabilize the board. FULLY stabilize and be out of burn range. How do we do that?

Order.  This is where we do some calculation and clarify what the lines of play are. If we play Ultimate Price, we're tapped out. The opponent is free to cast 2 more Monastery Swiftspears. Now, even drawing Bile Blight doesn't help us because we can't cast it with our mana on board. Plus the lands in our hand that make Black mana come into play tapped. We can't play the Hero's Downfall either for the same reasons. We essentially gave up turn 3 to kill one creature on turn 2. By the time we can remove a second creature, or play a blocker, it's turn 4. In theory, we could be well below 10 life by then.

If we play a tapped land instead, we can't cast Ultimate Price and the opponent is free to cast the same 2 additional Swiftspears. Isn't that worse? Isn't being attacked by 3 Swiftspears worse than being attacked by 2? Maybe not, because sooner or later you have to play those tapped lands to get your Black mana for a follow up to Ultimate Price. The longer you wait to have double Black on line, the more trouble you will be in. Better to take the hit and be ready to put a stop to the parade of creatures than to save 1 or 2 damage and not be able to play bile Blight, Pharika's Cure, Drown in Sorrow or Hero's Downfall for that matter. Heck you can't even play Courser of Kruphix turn 3 unless you get those tapped lands down in turns 1 and 2 without drawing an untapped mana source.

It's painful, but hoping to draw an untapped Black land in a 3 color deck is not the best line in this case. All of our untapped Black mana lands are pain lands as well, except Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. When playing Black control in today's Standard, you need double black by turn 3 the latest against aggressive decks.

Okay, so we know we've narrowed it down to playing a tapped land. That way on turn 3 we can play any removal spell we draw, or at least play Hero's Downfall or the Courser.

Does it matter if we play the land first main phase or second? In this case, no, but when in doubt, play it second main phase. That at least isn't complicated.

Play. So, we're playing a tapped land. Given all the information we've seen, which one is best? The Temple of Silence seems best. We need the scry more than we need the availability of Green mana, seeing as how we can always fetch a forest with Windswept Heath if we decide to play Courser of Kruphix. So, before we play that land, what's our plan for the scry? We are looking for cheap removal, particularly Bile Blight, or Drown in Sorrow. Another Ultimate Price may do fine, considering we'll have mana to cast Hero's Downfall on turn 3 and both Ultimate Prices on turn 4.

Everybody ready? Move you your second main phase and play that Temple of Silence! Ignore the voices second guessing your plan. You did the leg work. Trust in your plan. If it turns out bad, you at least have reasons for doing it.

That may be an overwrought example, considering most of us know which lands to play and when. Okay, how about a situation with a little bit of ambiguity to it?

It's late in game 3 with the same Abzan Control deck. We're facing an Abzan Aggro list. We have Bile Blight in hand and this guy on the board:


We have plenty of lands. D-lo is still summoning sick, and we will be passing the turn into our opponent's board of

Simian Spirit Guide

JUST KIDDING! It's actually

Fleecemane Lion

It's not monstrous, and our opponent has only three untapped lands, a Plains, a Forest and a Sandsteppe Citadel. Opponent has only one card. We have 10 life, our opponent is at 7 life.

Should we Bile Blight that lion end step? It keels Fleecemane while our opponent has no mana to monstrous in response. Do we do it? Why not? That Bile Blight might sit in our hand and rot for all we know. Time to go to IHOP.

Information. Our opponent left mana up for our turn. We played a threat that stops him from casting whatever it was he had in mind because if the test on Dragonlord Dromoka that says opponents cannot cast spells on our turn. What costs 3 mana, is an instant, and does not cost double Black? I wish I had a pun for that. I don't. What would our opponent have that wants to be left up during our turn late in the game? White, Black and Green.

Abzan Charm

Our opponent may, in all likelihood, have this card. They can't cast it on our turn, but will have enough mana to cast it next turn and monstrous Fleecemane Lion or play another threat. That' our information.

Hedge. Do we want to play around Abzan Charm? Aside from refusing to pass the turn, how do we do that? Do we care if Fleecemane goes monstrous? It becomes a 4 damage indestructible with hexproof. We can only kill it with a sacrifice effect. But if we can save our Dragonlord, he wins in a race plus gains us life! If we could save Dromoka from Abzan Charm, and if our opponent does not draw another removal spell next turn, we will be able to gain back whatever we lose to Fleecemane Lion, plus have our opponent down to 2 life and that's Siege Rhino range.

If we Bile Blight the Lion now, opponent responds with Abzan Charm on their turn and we're both in top deck mode. My top decks are usually better than his this late in the game, but then it puts us in the realm of get lucky or get dead. Plus, he gets to play the first threat, if he draws one. Then we're on our heels fishing for removal or a blocker.

Some of you see where I'm going with this. This situation came up in a game for me just the other day. It wasn't this exact situation, but I had a Bile Blight in hand, and a Dragonlord Dromoka on the field. My opponent cast Abzan Charm. I Bile Blighted my own Dragonlord Dromoka to get his power below 3, which is the threshold for Abzan Charm's removal condition. The Charm bounced harmlessly to the floor. So, we do have that option in the above example.

Now, is it possible this Abzan Charm nonsense is all in our head? Is it possible that last card is Wingmate Roc? Is it possible he/she draws Wingmate Roc? Now we took 4 damage, didn't get Charmed, but instead face down 2 flying 3/4's that could gain him some life over the next few turns? If we killed the lion, no raid trigger means no token for the Roc.

Well, this is where I remind you to play around the most damaging, but also most likely plays your opponent can make. How many Abzan Aggro lists are playing Wingmate Roc? A few. How many per 60? Maybe 2. How suspicious is holding up exactly 3 correct Abzan Charm mana for no reason? If we lose our Dragonlord to Abzan Charm, can we beat a Wingmate Roc without its token buddy? I'll take my chances and keep my lifelinker flyer, infinite blocker on the board, plus get that removal spell out of his hand as well. I think that's the best line

Order. We know it's now or never to Bile Blight that lion. The order of the stack makes it so casting Bile Blight into open monstrous mana lets our adversary monstrous in response and the ability resolves before Bile Blight. We also know we have to be very careful about blocking the Fleecemane Lion this turn if we want to use our Bile Blight to ward off an Abzan Charm. We pass the turn, opponent attacks with Fleecemane, we block, he casts Abzan Charm, we Bile Blight and oops. Our 5/7 becomes a 2/4, avoiding Abzan's Charming ways, but now takes 4 damage from the Lion and Dromoka dies anyways.

No no no. Don't think that's so obvious in the heat of the moment. We block because it makes sense in any other circumstance. We do it almost out of habit. If we're not thinking about the order of events of the next turn, we could easily snap block and immediately see it and regret it. We have to know in advance we're taking 4 damage and going to 6 before we decide to pass the turn and play around Abzan Charm.

Play. Once committed to the plan of Bile Blight)ing our own Dragonlord, we have to stick to it and play it correctly. Pass the turn, if he plays nothing and attacks, no blocks. If we end up being wrong, we can still attack next turn and gain 5 life and put him/her to 2. If he plays a threat, we can re-evaluate.

The point is, without recognizing a decision point, slowing down and getting our simple decision making tool out, we miss a play that could potentially be a lot better for us. The obvious play is to kill the Lion. Perhaps, if the opponent had zero cards, or three cards, or didn't strongly represent Abzan Charm, then we might not hold Bile Blight. There's certainly merits to killing the Lion. I just feel (and felt when I was in a similar situation) that losing my Dragon to Abzan Charm was not a life I was willing to live.

Breakfast of champions. IHOP is not perfect. It's also not the only way I evaluate certain plays or lines of play. It's another shiny tool in my shiny tool arsenal of shiny tools. The value of it comes from the fact that it forces me to slow down and articulate the concepts to myself. When I know I'm popping off too quick, it's a great way to pull it all back. It's in my nature to play fast and loose, so it's good to have a counter balance to that.


Who are you to resist a good card reference, eh?


It's the section where the announcements are, well, special. It's time to choose a deck to play at Grand Prix Providence ! As most of you know, I've been playing mostly Abzan based decks, with a few Sultai slash Blue Black decks mixed in. I've experimented with playing other colors to get a feel for their strategy, but I knew Green and Black were somehow going to show up in the end. The form of the traveler has been chosen.

Calm Control
4 Siege Rhino
4 Courser of Kruphix
4 Satyr Wayfinder
12 cards

Other Spells
2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
4 Abzan Charm
4 Hero's Downfall
2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
1 Utter End
4 Thoughtseize
2 Sidisi, Undead Vizier
1 Garruk, Apex Predator
2 Bile Blight
1 Ultimate Price
1 Murderous Cut
20 cards
1 Caves of Koilos
2 Forest
2 Plains
2 Llanowar Wastes
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Temple of Silence
4 Windswept Heath
4 Temple of Malady
4 Sandsteppe Citadel
24 cards

2 Drown in Sorrow
1 Nissa, Worldwaker
2 Read the Bones
1 Bile Blight
1 Utter End
1 End Hostilities
2 Duress
1 Ultimate Price
1 Murderous Cut
1 Back to Nature
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
1 Virulent Hommies! (Plague)
13 cards
End Hostilities


This is pretty much the stock list Jacob Wilson played at an SCG Open recently. It will undergo many modifications as the meta evolves, but this is the basis for now. Things to note: There are no sweepers in the main board. Satyr Wayfinder is out mana fixer, plus enables delve and is exploit food, but I may switch to half Sylvan Caryatid at some point, seeing as how Red Beat Down just won a pro tour. And handily. Versus Blue Black Control.

Sidisi, Undead Vizier has won me some games. There's a lot of 'one ofs' in the deck because usually you do get to exploit for the card you need. I have also played Dragonlord Dromoka out of the sideboard (two copies), and it's about the most highly underrated of the Dragonlords in my opinion. It's great against control, believe it or not, and does a number on aggro decks if I stabilize. Six mana is such a low threshold in this meta. Ultimate Price is becoming an all star in the format with the switch to the mono colored creatures that have been happening. Very few decks can play without at least one valuable single color threat.

Most important in my opinion is the mana base. 24 lands and I don't seem to run into sticky mana issues as much as I thought. Plus the deck seems to mulligan to six and to five pretty well. I am more than pleased with how it plays. There's enough complexity to keep me happy and give me challenges to overcome in practice.

So, there's not much left to do but play, practice and dream. I haven't had much time for any of those, as there was a big furniture move last weekend, work is pathetically busy and everyone wants a piece of CLB in the spring. Thank goodness this is the last card set before the Grand Prix. This is the world I am set to compete it. Time to get to it! Next week, perhaps some humiliating videos? Can't wait.

Thanks for reading.

Until next time.



Blessing happens anytime. It by lenyrose2013 at Sat, 09/24/2016 - 01:31
lenyrose2013's picture

Blessing happens anytime. It depends on how you see it. - Bath Planet