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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Jul 18 2014 11:00am
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State of the Program for July 18th – Sort Of

This week will be/was insane for me at work and home, and I will be completely tied up. I knew this was coming, so I prepared this article well in advance. On the plus side, that means I could concentrate on writing a great article. On the downside, I can’t predict the news, prices and so forth a couple weeks in advance, so I’ll cover all of that next week. The regular SotP will be back next week. In the meantime, enjoy this article on improving your game. I’ve been working on it for a while – as the featured deck will show.     
 

Five Little Leaks

As a judge, I watch a lot of Magic. One of the hardest parts of being a judge is seeing a ton of misplays, and not being able to say anything. I’m not talking about game rule violations or the like – judges correct those and give out penalties, where appropriate. What I am talking about are the little misplays – the things that don’t violate any rules, other than the rule that you play to win.  I see a ton of those in live play, and a lot more on videos and stream.
 
I’m not talking about the big errors, like losing to an onboard trick, mistapping mana or falling for an obvious bluff. Sure, those errors happen, and they cost games, but they are true mistakes. They are due to not thinking clearly, or not paying enough attention. Fixing those errors is, basically, getting better at Magic. What I want to talk about are the more avoidable errors that are primarily due to laziness. These are the little errors that not just sloppy play, they occur, repeatedly, because players don’t train themselves to avoid them. It’s like tapping your mana correctly – you have to teach yourself to look at the mana cost of what you are casting and  what you might want to cast later, or at least represent.
 
What I want to talk about are the totally avoidable misplays that never seem important, but are. These misplays don’t cost you games directly, they just reduce your chances of winning by a percentage or two. That’s not much, but if your odds of winning are, given your deck and skill level, 56%, how many times can you afford to give away a percentage point or two? 
 
Poker folks refer to small mistakes players make repeatedly as “leaks.” That’s what this article is about s are: small things that leak away value.  They are also the problems you can fix, with a little thought and practice.  And if you fix them, you will lose a bit less often.
 
I want to provide some examples of what I am talking about. And to do that, I need a deck. Here is a deck I drafted at my local game store, in the last FNM before the Journey into Nyx prerelease. It will serve to illustrate some of these little leaks.  
 
 
Originally, I had included some discussion of my picks and games, but this format is old. I’ll just say that I lost game three of the finals when my Time to Feed to kill his Akroan Skyguard w/ Ordeal of Heliod was countered by God’s Willing. 
 
But that’s as may be.   Let’s assume you have drafted this deck. It’s round one. Here’s your opening hand, on the play. What land should you play? Does it matter?
 
 
 
The answer is that it matters very much. You play the Forest on turn one. Look at the deck, above. You have two Swordwise Centaurs in the deck. They are very clearly the best card you could play on turn two. If you play the Plains turn one and then draw a Centaur, you cannot play it turn two. Any two drop you could draw can be played off a Forest and a Plains. The Forest is the clear play. It’s the obvious play, but I have watched a lot of players fail to make it. Sometimes it costs them.
 
Even if you had only one Swordwise Centaur in the deck, the chance of drawing it on turn two is about 3%. By playing the Plains first, you are giving up that 3% chance of a great play on turn two. Sure, you can still play the Voyaging Satyr on turn two, but the turn two Centaur on the play is better, especially with this hand and deck. In this deck, though, you have two Centaurs, so the odd of drawing one next turn are much higher than 3%. Playing the Plains is a little leak that might have no effect, or might cost you serious tempo.   
 

Little Leak # 1: Playing the wrong land on turn one. 

Don’t do it.  Think about your deck and play accordingly. Playing the Plains first is a tiny little error, and most of the time it will have no impact. You might not even notice, unless you draw the Centaur turn two. But it is a leak, none-the-less.
 
So, moving on. You play the Forest and pass.   Your opponent plays Swamp and Tormented Hero. You draw Elspeth. What’s your play here? Hint – it isn’t pass, or land, pass. You have two reasonable choices: Forest, Voyaging Satyr or Plains, Voyaging Satyr. Which one, and does this one matter?  
 
And, yes, when I’m in teaching mode, I do ask questions for which the correct answer is “it doesn’t matter.” Is this one of those?
 
No, it isn’t.
 
The play here is Forest, Voyaging Satyr. Plains, Satyr is just wrong, but I see it all the time. Why is it wrong? Because you are giving your opponent information you don’t need to give away, for no reason. You can play the Satyr with either land, and with the Satyr, two Forests and the Plains, you can play any four drop you might draw on turn three. The only difference that playing the Plains can make is that it tells your opponent you are green-white, instead of green and something. 
 
Giving away that information a turn early probably has no effect 95% of the time, but why give away that 5%?
 

Leak # 2: Playing the wrong land on turn two.

Is this really a leak?   Well, let’s assume your opponent has an Ordeal in hand, along with Pain Seer and some random stuff including Viper’s Kiss. The opponent has to decide whether to go all in with the Ordeal.   The opponent needs to consider the common, typically played spells that could two for one him if he does cast the Ordeal.   Against a white opponent, the only common removal spells the opponent really has to fear are Divine Verdict and Last Breath, and Last Breath is negated by one Ordeal counter. Against blue, the opponent can be wrecked by (Voyage’s End), Griptide and Retraction Helix – all common and always main deck.    Black has Feast of Dreams, Pharika’s Cure and maybe Weight of the Underworld.  Red has Bolt of Keranos (one Mountain and the Satyr lets you cast it), Rage of Purphoros (eventually) and Fall of the Hammer (with a Sedge Scorpion or fattie). Green can block, but the only removal that can kill it is Sedge Scorpion plus Time to Feed, and that is a two-for-two.     
 
In other words, the common removal spells for blue and black are likely to two-for-one the opponent next turn, if he goes all in on the Ordeal.   Red is slightly less likely to get the two-for-one next turn, but the turn after that a Rage of Purphorous is not an unreasonable fear.  The opponent knows, however, that the Ordeal is a safe play against GW. Against GW, the only commons that can get rid of the Tormented Hero with Ordeal before it fires are Time to Feed plus a Scorpion or fattie, or Divine Verdict. (Remember, this example comes from a Born/Thereos/Theros draft. I could use a JOU/BRN/THS example, but it would just make the analysis longer.   The result is the same.)
 
Here’s the point: if you play the Plains, you are giving your opponent a lot of information, for no reason. You are telling your opponent what your second color is, and that you are not color screwed. You are tapping out to play the Voyaging Satyr either way, and there is nothing in your hand or deck that could require you to drop the Plains this turn instead of next.   Either land will work to get the Satyr into play, but playing the Plains makes your opponent’s life a lot easier. 
 
Remember, Limited games are not random. Limited formats have archetypes, pick orders, and a restricted set of relevant removal and combat tricks. All of that limits the ways in which matches can pay out. Even before your first match, you know what cards may matter, both for you and against you. When you know your opponent’s first color, the set of cards that may matter, and ways the match may play out, are reduced. When you know your opponent’s second color, that set of possible outcomes is reduced even further. The decisions become easier, and the set of cards you need to play around much smaller. Showing your opponent your second color gives them a huge advantage. Never do it before you need to.
 
Again, this is a small leak, and only directly decides a small percentage of games – but why give away that percentage?   
 

Leak # 3: Playing the Card You Just Drew after Being Thoughtseized 

Heres’ another little leak that I see way too much, and one that drives me crazy.   Adam Thoughtseizes Nick and sees two Swamps, a Desecration Demon, a Hero’s Demise and a Grey Merchant. He takes the Demon. On Nick’s turn, Nick plays a shock land, tapped, then passes. Next turn he does it again, with a second shock land. 
 
What’s wrong with that? The shock lands were the only card Adam didn’t know. Nick could have played Swamps for the next two turns, without affecting his development. By playing the shocks, Nick has told Adam exactly what he drew. Yes, Nick may have avoided losing some life further down the line, but at the cost of giving Adam perfect information about his draws. 
 
In the paper world, when someone Thoughtseizes me, I drop my hand. Now my opponent generally starts writing out the contents of my hand, but I tell him “never mind” and lay out my hand, face up, on the bottom of my pay mat. It looks like I’m being nice, but that’s not the reason. I am keeping the known cards face up, and any new cards face down, for my benefit. I want to make sure I know what my opponent knows about my hand. The face up, face down pattern also helps remind me to play known lands first. 
 
Magic is a complex game. As many pros have noted, the player who makes the fewest mistakes tends to win. Magic is also a game of incomplete information, and many of those mistakes happen because a player guesses incorrectly about what cards his opponent is, or is not, holding. 
 

Leak #4: Play Creature, Attack, F6:

How many times have you watched someone on a video or while streaming play out their creatures or spells during their first main phase, then declare attackers and hit F6 to pass through the rest of their turn?   It does save time – F6 lets you skip a bunch of prompts which would otherwise eat your clock. True, preserving your clock is a real thing on MTGO, especially when you are narrating a video. But that comes at a cost. 
 
Now I am not saying that playing spells before combat is always wrong. Some spells are designed to be cast before combat.   Bestowing creatures, casting haste dudes, and playing spells like Act of Treason in your first main phase are all fine plays. What I’m complaining about is tapping out to cast your four drop on turn four before bashing with your three drop. 
 
It is one thing to “bluff” not having a combat trick. It is another to let yourself get completely blown out by your opponent when you didn’t have to. 
 
Here’s an example of what I am talking about. Nicholas played first, and dropped a (Wingstead Rider) on turn three. On his turn four, he equipped it with Ordeal of Thassa and attacked, then passed with one Island open, having missed his land drop.  Andy had played a Centaur Courser on his turn three. On his turn four he played a Pheres-Band Tromper first main, then attacked with the Centaur. It was promptly eaten by the Wingstead Rider, via Triton Tactics
 
Would this had happened if Andy had left mana open in combat, and played the Tromper second main? Of course not. Nicholas would never have risked the Wingstead Rider if Andy might have had a trick.  Nicholas had great flier, a combat trick in hand, and was missing land drops. Having the Ordeal draw him cards next turn was important – too important to risk blocking a 3/3. However, once Andy tapped out before combat, the risk was gone.
 
This is a little thing, and one that does not cost players all that often – but I see people tapping out precombat for no reason all the time. I have seen it while judging at Grand Prix, on day two, among players who are in top eight contention. It could be laziness, or maybe bad habits developed on MTGO. (The other sure sign of a MTGO player is that they miss triggers if they don’t have a big pop-up window.) 
 
How much difference does playing correctly make? Probably none – but it at least makes your opponent think. If they think, they can make mistakes. 
 
Look at it this way: when you enter combat with a card in hand and mana open, your opponent have to decide whether your trick could trump their trick before blocking. When you tap out and drop your hand before combat, you are saying, in effect, “your trick is fine. Go ahead and blow me out if you want.”  Or if you tap out precombat every turn until turn nine, then start going to combat with mana up and a card in hand, even the densest newbie will smell a trick. And if you are deliberately playing badly, then start playing correctly just to bluff a trick, you are fooling no one but yourself.  
 
Just play your post-combat spells post combat, like Richard Garfield intended. Not doing that just leaks away your win percentage. 
 

Leak #5 – The Art Gallery:

This one is really picky, but I included it on the list because it is super easy to avoid. Making this mistake is just pure laziness. It’s playing cards with a mix of arts, or mixing foils and non-foil copies. The most egregious examples are probably decks with basic lands with a mix of all the artwork form the most recent set. That happens because the deck editor just pulls the newest lands first, and those are generally from whatever set you drafted recently. True, it takes an extra 30 seconds to keep adding lands until you have enough of the same set and artwork, then move the rest back into your collection, but it’s just 30 seconds. Or do what I do: keep a set of 24 of each basic land with your favorite artwork (and frame) and trade off all the rest of your basic lands.  Then the deck editor will add nothing but matching lands. 
 
In a way, this is the Thoughtseize leak all over again.  It is giving your opponent unnecessary information.   Now maybe you will never have to reveal your hand, or your opponent may not remember that he is now seeing the third different Elixir of Immortality.    Or maybe you will always remember which version to play after being Duressed, so you don’t give away information about what you drew. But why take the chance?
 
Playing with your hand revealed is a disadvantage. Giving your opponent information about what you drew is a disadvantage.  Sure, the odds of having different art actually convey useful information are small (but not zero.) Maybe it is only a tenth of a percent – but that tenth of a percent leak is totally and completely avoidable. That’s why it makes the list.
 
As for whether playing mixed land is a real disadvantage, here’s something to consider. When I work logistics at a limited GP, I take the time to sort the basic land by artwork, so players can play identical versions. A number of pros have thanked me for this. More importantly, not a single pro has ever chosen a mix of artwork for their basics, unless nothing else was available.   
 

Honorable Mention - RTFC:

The prerelease was last weekend, so I have to add once more avoidable leak.
 
People, whenever you are faced with a card you do not know, read it. Click on the card, let it zoom out and read it. Sometimes the card has interesting things to say.
 
Not knowing what the cards do is a leak – other a big leak. Most players get past that one pretty fast. It is the more subtle effects that players miss. Classic example: in an early VMA draft, my opponent learned why you don’t cast Exile targeting a Wild Mongrel. Or here’s a more recent example: a player refused to drop his bomb creature because an opponent had the mana to bounce Mercurial Pretender back to his hand, and replay it. What he didn’t bother reading was that Mercurial Pretender can only copy a player’s own creatures - not those of an opponent. The Pretender is not a true clone.
 

Conclusion:

None of these little leaks are huge problems, but they all have an impact. Personally, I try to make it a point to avoid these. I have enough other disadvantages (like not having enough time to play) that I cannot afford to give away anything. 
 
I hope you liked this. Next week should be less insane, so I will be able to get a more traditional SotP out. With the new client becoming the only client, M15 coming to MTGO and more, there will be a lot of write about.   Until then…
 
PRJ
 
“one million words” on MTGO     

15 Comments

one more by Cownose at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 11:31
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5

Great article (as usual) Pete, while we are on the subject I'd like to add another (big) mistake I have been seeing lot lately. I'm guessing this comes from players new to Vintage/eternal, but there is almost never a good time to push F6 during a Vintage turn. Over the last few weeks I have had my opponents F6 at the beginning of my turn much more often than it should occur (which is almost never). Clicking F6 gives your opponent an insane amount of information in Vintage and also completely changes their lines of play and decision trees. If I cast my mox turn 1 or 2 and notice that you have F6'd me, it completely changes the calculus of what to do that turn: I no longer have to weigh the risk/reward of various lines of play, I no longer have to worry about keeping counter mana up to protect my spells, I no longer have to worry about keeping blue cards in my hand to pitch to force, I no longer have to try and bait out the Mental Misstep/Flusterstorm or get a Thoughtseize before going all-in. Vintage decision trees are extremely complex, and executing a hand perfectly is nearly impossible to do... hitting F6 basically makes the decisions for your opponent (always do the most broken thing you can with the cards in your hand) instead of making them do the thinking (and giving THEM the opportunity to make suboptimal choices).

You're absolutely right. I by Alphi at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 12:12
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You're absolutely right. I don't play Vintage, but in Legacy, I sometimes try hard to press 'ok' as soon as I can to try to give the impression of having F6ed. It's obviously difficult to tell if it's successful in any way unless you talk to your opponent about it, but when the client lags a little, there is very little difference between a quick click and a proper F6.

Appreciate the pull ups Pete. by Paul Leicht at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 12:52
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5

Appreciate the pull ups Pete. Everyone makes leaks. This is something I learned the hard way watching great players. The thing is, the leaks of great players are very subtle. The leaks here are what I like to call pet peeves. Especially the thoughtseize leak and the art leak. Limited is a pain to provide correct lands for because as you said the client autochooses the most recent ones. And I don't play limited often but I see the same thing in constructed formats. Basic lands with 3-4 different arts for each type! I've told people in the past about getting full playsets (24-30 lands of each basic type) and sticking with them but eventually you see enough people doing it and you stop telling them.

As for the Creature/F6 leak...well I can't say I have never done this but it is usually when I know my opponent can't use the opportunity and speed is of the essence. F4 is much more useful even if you have no response possible since it will auto-pause as soon as your opponent goes to do something and it will train them to be wary of what they think is a pass.

As for playing stuff in the main phase, sometimes you want your opponent to think you have nothing to do but play stuff in the first main phase so that they commit their forces/tricks and you then hit them with the cheap trick in your hand that you left mana up for. (That doesn't happen often.) Sometimes playing a creature first subtly enhances the attack potential you have, or greatly enhances it in the case of a haster, or lord but typically there is no other good reason for doing this. Ever. Particularly in limited. In constructed different play rhythms happen.

The which land to play first/second is still something I consider to this day in any deck where land color matters. Because imho it is a primary strategic consideration. It may seem small but tempo is everything in the early/mid game. If you wait long enough with neither side doing anything but playing lands then it goes away but an early beater or mana dude or what have you can set the tone for the entire game.

Not just setting up how to play out your hand but also how to play with what is in your deck and what is likely to happen on your opponent's turn.

I have 3 green lands in hand, 1 tropical island and 2 savannahs. I know on turn 3 I want to be able to pay 2U to get my guy out and if I start with tropical my opponent will have the opportunity to stripmine or wasteland or in the case of a LD deck stone rain/sinkhole my tropical thus possibly setting back my game plan permanently or at least for a long time. It is a good thing to know what your opponent is playing but it is also good to not give them gifts.

There are a few cases (mostly by Tribal Apocalypse at Sun, 07/20/2014 - 08:03
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There are a few cases (mostly developed through tribal play) in which playing a creature in pre-combat is the correct play, even if that creature doesn't affect combat directly (which most creatures in tribal linear builds do, of course).

It's sort of a psychological trick: if I want to push my opponent into a specific choice (both to let my attacker through OR to block it, for some reason), I might want to tell my opponent, "Look at what you'll be facing on my next turn" or "See? Your blocker won't pass through on your next turn anyway" before they make their combat choices, so that those choices will be influenced. Of course, most of the times it's more useful to influence those choices by NOT revealing the other creature before combat, but the opposite is possible, especially if you noticed a pattern in the opponent's behavior, or already know them.

At times in my Modern Simic by Rerepete at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 14:00
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At times in my Modern Simic Aether Vial deck, I will play an island first over the probably proper forest (Strangeroot Geist is in the deck) to make the opponent think it is a merfolk deck and wrap their thinking along those lines.

You can do some F6 trickery by Giraffe at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 16:02
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5

You can do some F6 trickery by hitting it then hovering on 'remove auto yields' and release it as they start tapping lands for a spell or begin combat - if they had a creature they otherwise likely wouldn't be attacking with in fear of a trick.

I have mostly all the same by Joe Fiorini at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 22:16
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I have mostly all the same art lands. Only because I got halfway through buying identical zendikar lands for my decks and couldn't find all the same pics from the same place.
My urzatron lands are like that too. At least none of them are white bordered (gross)!

And Rtfc is one of my leaks. .. lost a game just now because i didn't read a card right.

MTGOTraders has most of the by Paul Leicht at Sat, 07/19/2014 - 00:21
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MTGOTraders has most of the Zen land art. Strangely I haven't found a plains full art I like.

I keep forgetting about it by Joe Fiorini at Sat, 07/19/2014 - 05:54
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I keep forgetting about it until i'm playing a game with it. thanks though.
what about unhinged plains? kind of expensive though.

Yes the unhinged lands are by Paul Leicht at Sat, 07/19/2014 - 13:02
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Yes the unhinged lands are between 1 and 3 tix per depending on the land which imho is too much for bling. But then again whatever the market will bear.

Now I have the lands In my by Joe Fiorini at Sat, 07/19/2014 - 19:04
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Now I have the lands In my blue tron deck fixed. Bit I have a foil promo wurmcoil and a non foil promo wurmcoil, so that's a new quest.

Try the Euro and APAC plains. by doc_brietz at Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:17
doc_brietz's picture

Try the Euro and APAC plains. All the ones I use are either Euro or APAC. I love the sunflower fields and the dutch windmill ones.

Leak #3 is fairly situational by MarcosPMA at Sun, 07/20/2014 - 00:10
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Leak #3 is fairly situational in my opinion. Sometimes it's correct to play the card you drew after getting Thoughtseized: scryland if you're looking for land/spells, land if you kept a 1 lander, your own Thoughtseize, or a creature that you would normally cast that turn. I would say the leak is when you play what you drew after getting Thoughtseized and it has no impact on the game.

I do believe that was Pete's by Paul Leicht at Sun, 07/20/2014 - 01:18
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I do believe that was Pete's thrust.

The idea of not giving away by Kumagoro42 at Sun, 07/20/2014 - 08:15
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The idea of not giving away unnecessary information through the lands you play has an interesting corollary I picked up along the way essentially by chance (since I'm not a very technical player). We could call it, "Confuse your opponent by giving away wrong information".

For instance, in a Constructed monocolored deck, if you're not in a meta where Wasteland and Blood Moon are a concern, you should always include some fetchlands and off-color duals. Say you're piloting monogreen (where this strategy is particularly effective), you start dropping Bayou, then Savannah, the opponent won't know what to expect, and will spend most of the entire match waiting for those splashes to materialize. I played a Cleric deck recently that had some Scrublands only for the off-chance of activating Starlit Sanctum's black-based ability when sacrificing Academy Rector, and my opponents kept thinking I was running black Cleric shenanigans, or were just confused by the exact number of colors in my deck.