Here’s the situation. Throne of Eldraine draft. I’m at 16 life, my opponent is at 7. They have one card in hand, I have none. On their side of the board, Redcap Rider, Raging Redcap, (each with enough +1/+1 counters to make them 4 power) and a Venerable Knight with Summoning Sickness. On my side, brave Syr Konrad, the Grim standing alone against the forces of evil, and four Food Tokens, that’s all. I have 7 mana available.
My opponent attacks with both Goblins.
I have a critical decision here. I could block with Konrad, hoping to trade with Redcap Rider. If they have On Alert (the Adventure half of Silverflame Squire), then I’ll lose Konrad, and they’ll keep their entire board. That would be disastrous for me. A quick calculation shows this attack is not for lethal damage (4 + 4 double strike = 12). If oppo has a pump spell it’ll be for either +2/+2 or +3/+0. Either way, the most they’ll add is 6 points, and I can snack some food in response and still not die.
So what do you do?
Magic is full of critical decision points like this. Are you the aggressor or the defender? What is the best way to use your limited resources? Go for the win this turn, or wait for more information? Learning to navigate these decisions is part of what’s going to really elevate your game. It can be very difficult to parse these situations.
In this example, my chances of winning this game are very small. The best I can do is nudge them a little one way or another. My opponent has a clear advantage, despite my substantial life total. If I trade Konrad off here – assuming that is successful – then I’m still taking a whopping amount of damage, and I’ll be playing entirely off the top of my deck. Knowing what removal is available to me here is also important, and I don’t think I have a copy of Bake Into A Pie left in my deck. Even if I do, there’s a very small chance that I’ll draw it, since there’s only one or two copies total in my deck. So at this point there’s very little I can do about the double striking Goblin, except continue to chump him.
I choose to not block. My opponent casts no pump spells, and I fall to 4 life. Now is the second critical decision point. Do I snack food and gain 9 life, or do I activate Konrad and attempt do burn my opponent out? The difference here is between playing to win the game, or playing to not lose the game. It’s important to understand that taking the more offensive line is not always the correct decision. It can very much be the case that gaining the life will buy you the time to make one or two additional card draws, which is what you need to lock your opponent out.
In this situation, gaining the additional life felt like it was only prolonging the inevitable. Regardless of what the top of my deck produces, I would be in essentially the same position on their next turn. Slightly worse, actually, since I’d be going in at 13 life instead of 16, and with only 1 Food Token, instead of 4. I would be expending resources for no real gain. It would not improve my slim chances at victory, and I’d be priced into chumping the double-striker on their next attack, losing my Konrad for absolutely no value.
So I activate Konrad three times, and hit two creatures (including my Clackbridge Troll), putting them to 5 life. Go to my turn.
I top deck a Tempting Witch. This isn’t a particularly impactful card. I could cast it, and get another food token, but that’s not really going to leave me in a better place for their next attack. I’d have to chump with the Witch, and probably will still have to use Konrad to block the 4 power goblin. At this point, I am committed. I’m either going to win off Konrad, or lose, that’s just how it is.
I attack Konrad into their Knight. Why? Because they’re at 5 life, and when it’s reasonable, you should give your opponent the opportunity to screw up. They might have mis-clicked and failed to block. They might have lost track of their life total, or spaced on Konrad’s power. I realize that the chances of any of these are pretty small, but it’s a low risk attack since I can activate Konrad’s ability at instant speed, and I wasn’t expecting to win that way in any case. They throw their knight in front of Konrad’s heroic assault, and then SURPRISE! On Alert! They had it after all. If I’d blocked with Konrad the turn before, I’d be completely sunk now.
Well, it’s do or die time. In response to the pump spell, I go for the win.
Activate Konrad once.
Two creatures hit the yard. Oppo goes to 3.
Activate Konrad a second time.
One creature hits the yard. Oppo goes to 2.
This is it, I need to hit 2 creatures here, or I’ve lost the game.
Activate Konrad a third, and final time…..
BAM! Got there! Two creatures hit the bin, oppo goes to 0, and Syr Konrad and I ride off into the sunset, victorious.
This brings me to what ultimately prompted this post. Some people will dismissively call me lucky here. You see it all the time, where someone rips a sweet top deck, and gets exactly what they need to win the game. Angry cries of “lucksack” echo across the land.
It’s true that variance broke in my direction this time. but the point here, and in most of these cases, is that I put myself in a position to benefit from that luck. If I had played to “not lose” then I would never have had enough mana to activate Konrad enough times to win. I would have drawn into essentially dead cards, and my chances to win that game would have gone from slim to none.
It’s also true that if my opponent had cast the pump spell on their double striker, I would have had to snack a food to not die, leaving me short on mana for the win. But I believe that they correctly assessed that they were in the winning position and didn’t need to overextend. Also, this particular pump spell untaps a creature, so if I’d drawn into a removal spell, it gave them a surprise blocker to protect against Konrad attacking back. Not going for those 4 extra points there seems like the correct line on their part.
There’s more to luck in Magic then just having variance break your way. Your turn by turn decisions through the game can put you in a position to benefit when things do go your way, and also to recover when they don’t. Variance is a huge part of this game. It keeps things fresh, different, and exciting. But it doesn’t eliminate the power and importance of your decisions.
Magic isn’t solved. Unlike some games, it’s not entirely luck, or entirely skill, but a blend of the two. In the end, your objective isn’t really to win. It’s to increase your odds of winning as much as possible.